Cupid’s arrow often strikes at work, and while intra-office dating may initially seem harmless, employers may be left picking up the pieces when hearts get broken and sexual harassment or discrimination claims are filed. In fact, sexual harassment charges cost U.S. employers more than $208 million during the past five years, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to Michael V. Abcarian, managing partner of the Dallas office of management-side labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips, employers need to be aware of the top five areas that when ignored, can land an employer in court when office romance turns sour.
“Intra-office relationships have become common occurrences with more than half of the business professionals surveyed by Vault.com recently admitting to taking part in an office romance,” said Abcarian. “This can have serious repercussions for employers who must be prepared to respond when employees may be hit by cupid’s arrow.”
Top five ways office romances can land employers with a date in court:
- Wearing rose-colored glasses. Employers who choose to only see what they want to and look the other way when office romances bloom run a high risk of subjecting themselves to potential sexual harassment claims. Employers must acknowledge the reality that intra-office relationships occur, and establish and enforce policies about such relationships among coworkers.
- Forgetting the importance of boundaries. Office dating policies, like any good relationship, need boundaries. If employers allow office relationships, they should articulate expectations and set limits. Employers should consider prohibiting relationships between supervisors and employees. Even if the feelings are mutual in the beginning, if things take a turn for the worst, employees may file sexual harassment complaints and claim they felt pressured to continue their relationship with their superior for fear of negative repercussions if they terminated the relationship. In addition, employers should consider prohibiting public displays of affection in the workplace, because this often causes discomfort for others in the workplace.
- Supporting the “don’t kiss and tell” mentality. Employers should establish and encourage use of procedures for reporting sexual harassment. There should be more than one point of contact designated to handle such complaints. In addition, employers should convey an open door policy to employees to ensure they are comfortable reporting claims of sexual harassment. It is far better for employers to learn about such matters internally, before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sends an investigator to the office.
- Blowing off complaints. Employers must take all claims of sexual harassment seriously. It does not matter whether they do not believe the source to be credible, or if they believe the accused could never do such a thing. A reasonable internal investigation should be conducted whenever a harassment complaint is articulated by an employee.
- Playing favorites. All policies governing intra-office dating must be equally and consistently enforced. If, for example, you have a policy prohibiting supervisors from dating other employees and your highest performing supervisor violates this ban, you must take the same disciplinary action against him or her as you would any other supervisor. In addition to a potential sexual harassment lawsuit, playing favorites could result in a discrimination claim if the favorite employee is of a different gender, race or religion than other supervisors who were punished for the same conduct.
Though love starts sweet, it can also turn bitter. If employers do not implement policies governing office romance, an employee’s broken heart may end up breaking the employer’s bank.