Sex and Friendship in the Workplace: A Dilemma for Employers

Balancing the desire for a happy and productive workplace with the risk of relationships that go awry requires a clear policy and communication.

Posted by Randall Crane in Harassment, Human Resources on June 5th, 2012

For most employees the workplace demands more time than any other aspect of adult life. Many companies work to foster an atmosphere of teamwork, where a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose develops between people of similar ages, abilities, education and ambitions. Consequently, millions of American workers share activities outside the workplace with co-workers as well. Considering the logistics of a work-centered life, it is not surprising that friendships blossom and so does romantic involvement.

Relationships and Risk

Undoubtedly most personal relationships that begin in the workplace develop in a positive way for the individuals involved and for the company. Employers who demand long hours and great dedication cannot benefit from lonely, isolated employees with no lives outside of work. For many workers, friendship, dating and romance take place inside the company or possibly not at all.

Many friendships, and even romances, are ended by mature people who can separate personal matters from their work life and carry on in a constructive way without letting resentment cloud the employment relationship. But the small percentage of friendships that go awry do cause a disproportionate amount of friction in the workplace and plainly are a major contributor to lawsuits for sexual harassment and other employment issues. Many people are just not equipped to prevent anger, resentment, jealousy, and even a need for revenge from encroaching into work life.

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How to Manage Office Romance

So here is the dilemma. Employees, including managers and owners, will form personal connections, and that is both inevitable and in general a positive development.

But hard feelings will project in the workplace. A boss who is jilted by her attractive subordinate may, consciously or unconsciously, tend to downgrade him (or her). And the subordinate will be inclined to view ordinary discipline from the boss as a projection of hurt feelings.

The same is true for same-level employees. The hurt feelings from a broken friendship or romance cannot be stopped by cubicle walls.

What then does a well-managed and well-intentioned employer do to deal with the ocean of personal feeling that flows through every workplace?

Love Contract

A number of solutions have been floated in HR circles. Some attorneys and HR experts have drafted and recommend a “Love Contract.” This is a formal written agreement, something like a pre-nuptial agreement, which is intended to define the relationship between two employees considering, or involved in, a romance.

More importantly it is intended to shield the employer from liability by making the employees aware of the entanglements and unintended consequences of a romance and obtaining a waiver or release in some terms of the employer.

Many employers who have considered this tool have drawn back. For one, the employer must either be scouting the work force for suspicious conduct which might indicate a romance is in the works or require a form of self-reporting: “If you intend to have sex you must first let the employer know and sign this agreement.” What the consequence will be for not self-reporting intent-to-have-sex is unclear. Few employers have been willing to scour the workforce for suspected lovers or to spend the time necessary to draft and enforce a love contract.

Clear Communication Up Front

A better course is to confront the issue head-on. At time of hire or promotion, in addition to all the other materials, including the ubiquitous employee handbook, employees are almost universally required to acknowledge a prohibition on discriminatory conduct including sexual harassment. But this formalized statement does not help an employee deal with the day to day emergence of friendship and romance which flowers inevitably from the workplace.

Another course of action is a friendly guide to managing friendship and romance in the workplace. This assumes that employees are mature, well-intentioned, value their jobs, honor their co-workers, and can handle how their personal life balances with work life just as with any other aspect of life such as marriage and child rearing.

This can be coupled with an authentic and effective professional outside counseling system, which employees know that they can trust without information funneling back to the employer or even to the very boss who may have been  involved in the relationship in the first place.

Is this a perfect solution? Certainly not. People are people, there will always be human emotions at play, but it is a major step to a wise and well considered approach to friendship and romance gone awry in the workplace.

Randall Crane
Randall Crane

Principal Attorney at Law Offices of Randall Crane

Principal attorney at Law Offices of Randall Crane, has practiced business law and litigation since 1973, representing employers in California with an emphasis on employment law and litigation. Respected for practical problem solving and creative solutions, as well as cost effective and well-managed litigation, he services clients throughout the United States from law offices in Oakland, California. Graduated Boalt Hall School of Law, Elizabeth Joscelyn Boalt Scholar, in 1973. Pomona College 1967.

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