All You Need Is… A Sexual Harassment Complaint

You can’t prevent romance in the workplace, but you can stay out of trouble by knowing how to deal with it

Posted by Dawn Lomer in Employment Law, Harassment, Human Resources on February 14th, 2012

For those involved in an office romance, every day can feel like Valentines Day. But for the employer, staff relationships represent a potential legal landmine for sexual harassment claims as well as possible productivity and morale issues.

Considering that workers spend most of their time at work, it’s not surprising that office romances bloom. And they have lost the stigma of yesteryear. In a recent study, only six per cent of workers said dating someone at the same work level was unacceptable, and five per cent thought dating someone from a different department or office location was unacceptable. But when the romance is between managers and subordinates, things can get very tricky, especially when it comes to the potential for sexual harassment claims.

Dating the Boss

Of the 59 per cent of office workers in the 2011 Vault Office Romance Survey who revealed that they had participated in an office romance, 26 per cent had dated a subordinate and 18 per cent had dated his or her supervisor. Because of the power difference in a relationship between a supervisor and subordinate, these connections pose much more risk for the employer and garner stronger reactions from co-workers.

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Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in the Vault study thought a co-worker gained a professional advantage because of a romantic relationship with a supervisor or co-worker.

Drawing the Line

As companies try to become more “human” in their approaches to employees, they can’t simply rule out office relationships. At the same time, they can’t ignore the potential of work relationships to disrupt productivity and rain disaster onto other employees and the company.

Take, for example, the case Robin Shea talked about in her blog last week. A married doctor having an affair with his female nurse is unhappy when she ends it and continues to pursue her. She complains to her employer of sexual harassment and gets herself fired for disruptive behavior and having sex at work. She then files claims against her employer for sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and retaliation, costing the employer all sorts of money and grief before the courts throw out the case.

It’s no wonder employers just don’t want to have to deal with all this. But where do you draw the line?

Office Romance Policies

The most obvious answer is to have a policy that governs romantic relationships between employees. But most employee handbooks don’t tackle this issue.

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Romance Survey found that 72 per cent of companies surveyed don’t have a formal, written, romance policy, although 14 per cent say they have an unwritten, but well understood, norm in their workplace.

Along with a policy, training for supervisors and managers about how to deal with relationships among their staff can reduce the incidence of disastrous outcomes, including harassment claims. And of course all employees should be trained on the company’s sexual harassment policies and the consequences of bad behavior.

Love Contract

And then there’s the love contract, which Mark Toth wrote about on his blog last week. He describes it thus:

“To protect itself from liability, an employer requires romantically intertwined employees to sign an agreement stating that (1) the relationship is 100% welcome, voluntary and consensual and (2) they will fully comply with the employer’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, including immediately reporting any and all harassment, avoiding nepotism/favoritism and working in a professional manner at all times.”

Seems a bit over the top? Probably. Toth agrees: “ Effectively and consistently enforce your anti-harassment policies and you should be just fine.”


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.