"Love contracts" may limit employer liability for office romance
Are water-cooler romances a big issue at your workplace? If not, your organization may be in the minority. Forty percent of U.S. workers have dated an office colleague, with 31 percent of those romances progressing on to marriage, according to a recent workplace dating survey survey by CareerBuilder.
When workplace dating takes a wrong turn, it can result in headaches for the employer ranging from decreased productivity and an awkward work environment to legal liabilities such as sexual harassment and retaliation. The stakes are particularly high if dating involves employees from different levels of the office food chain. A supervisor-subordinate relationship, publicized in both fictional films and all-too-real court dramas, is the classic example of potential jeopardy. In the not-too-distant past, workplace romance was generally considered taboo, but times are changing. Yesterday's employer policies banning or restricting workplace dating are giving way to the so-called love contract, a written acknowledgment that a workplace relationship is consensual. Generally, the terms of such a contract would involve both parties agreeing to abide by company policies, both while dating and should the relationship end. Employment lawyer Brian Finucane says such contracts are "...almost a get-out-of-jail-free defense, from a lawyer’s perspective."
Attorney Marilyn Sneirson cautions that while such contracts can help to limit liability, they should only be regarded as a supplement to a company's anti-harassment policies. She suggests several key elements that should be addressed in love contracts:
- Any dispute arising from the relationship or contract will be resolved through arbitration
- Employees may want to consult an attorney before signing the contract
- Dating employees are expected to follow certain guidelines, such as refraining from displays of affection at work or work- related events
- Either employee "can end the relationship without fear of work-related retaliation"
- Dating employees agree to waive their rights to pursue a claim of sexual harassment for any event prior to the signing of the contract