Office Romances – How Employers Can Protect Against Liability

By: Anne Widlak, Partner, Nemeth Law, P.C., Detroit, Michigan

Submitted on behalf of the Labor and Employment PAC

Although Valentine’s Day is behind us, romance should not be forgotten. But when romance occurs in the workplace, it brings with it potential pitfalls that employers should take seriously. Some studies suggest that as many as half of all employees have engaged in an inter-office relationship, with half of those individuals admitting to having a tryst on site. Office romances have been a fact of life for a long time, but many employers are surprised to learn that these relationships can cause real problems in the workplace if they are not addressed.

For instance, when employees become aware that a supervisor and a subordinate are seeing one another, there is a real risk that co-workers will assume that the subordinate is getting special treatment. A perception of favoritism can create serious morale problems and significantly lower productivity. And how does the manager handle employment decisions about his or her sweetheart? What happens when the relationship is over? If the manager decides to end the relationship, a scorned lover may claim that the relationship was never consensual but was in reality sexual harassment. Or perhaps the subordinate breaks off the romance – he or she may claim that any negative employment decisions that follow are retaliatory.

A fraternization policy can help mitigate some of those risks. As a general matter, the policy should strongly discourage the existence of romantic relationships between a supervisor/manager and an employee. However, when such romances occur, the employer should require the manager to disclose it immediately. The supervisor and the employee should not be permitted to work together on the same matters, and the supervisor should have no decision-making authority with regard to that employee. The policy should also address romances between coworkers of equal rank. They should be cautioned to avoid public displays of affection while at work and informed that if the relationship produces a disruptive work environment they may be subject to discipline.

The implementation of a fraternization policy cannot solve every problem that may arise from the existence of office romances. However, at a minimum it will place employees on notice of what is expected of them and provide guidance to management about how to effectively handle these issues when they occur.

Over the course of 31 years, Anne Widlak has developed a specialty in management-side employment law as both a litigator and a counselor. She provides preventive counseling and investigatory work to employers of all sizes, advising in-house counsel, human resources professionals and other managers about a wide variety of employment issues in the workplace.

NAMWOLF’s Labor and Employment Practice Area Committee. The L&E PAC provides clients with excellent value-added legal services delivered by preeminent AV-rated minority and women attorneys. L&E PAC members represent Fortune 500 employers, family-owned Fortune 500 aspirants, as well as public employers. Representation involves advocacy in state and federal courts, arbitrations, and state and federal administrative bodies, but L&E PAC member firms counseling employers on how to best avoid litigation.