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Be Cautious About Workplace Romances

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Lindy Korn

By Lindy Korn

Buffalo, NY – For many employers today, the office is not only a place to work, but also a place to socialize. The increased connection between work and social life can create risks for employers, as today's Office romance can become tomorrow's lawsuit. Personal relationships between managers and employees are under increasing scrutiny by employers since they can result in favoritism and retaliation.

Simply put, the workplace is not designed to accommodate people falling in love, especially when they are in subordinate/superior positions at work, where performance evaluations can be undermined. Love is an irrational emotion, while the workplace is supposedly built on a foundation of rationality, policies, and complaint procedures based on notions of zero tolerance for harassment. Face it -- love affairs affect perceptions of co-workers, and can affect productivity, and can have legal consequences such as claims of sexual harassment or wrongful termination when a relationship goes sour.

Another outcome of workplace romance that can be risky for employers is information access to confidential information which romantic partners may share to benefit one another at work. The use of e-mail to pass "love notes" of the past can also create a discoverable trail from the boardroom to the maintenance room.

What to Do?

Many companies according to a recent survey, do NOT have policies on office romance, while some companies have developed written or unwritten policies in an effort to control the issue before it becomes a problem that results in litigation. Policies range from discouraging to prohibiting romantic relationships between employees. Conflicts of interest usually form the basis for those policies that contain prohibitive language. Some companies have gone to the extreme of creating a love contract that says any disputes arising between workers in a romantic relationship will be handled through arbitration, and is based on an acknowlegement of the company's policy against sexual harassment and on the consenual nature of the relationship.

These type of agreements are most appropriate between high level executives and direct subordinates -- where a "power" differential is at play. Consider a recent case in the State of Massachusetts where a female employee was fired after her consenual relationship with the company president ended and she began a new relationship. She alleged when the president discovered the new relationship, he crudely interrogated her, revoked her employment privileges, and threatened her job and future. In this case both the company and its president were held liable under Massachusetts state law for damages resulting from Quid Pro Quo -- this for that -- sexual harrassment.

The emotional pain of romances gone sour, is most dangerous in the workplace where retaliation is sought by one in a position of power over a subordinate with less power -- once the love in the air has dissipated.

Perhaps policies should require that only those in equal positions of power enagage in workplace romance!

Lindy Korn is an attorney and president of Diversity Training.