Office romance? First, sign a contract.
Love-struck workers may be inevitable, but lawsuits from jilted lovers are not – if employees consent to a 'love contract.'
Five years ago, when Nicholas Turner began dating an employee who reported to him at Kaye/Bassman International Corp. in Plano, Texas, he did not try to hide their relationship. He was also careful to avoid any perception that he was playing favorites in his treatment of her. Their romance blossomed. When they married 18 months later, they joined at least four other couples who had wed after meeting there.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"The company doesn't frown on relationships," says Mr. Turner, chief operating officer of the recruiting firm. "They're going to happen. We support them."
It's an attitude more employers are accepting, however reluctantly, as Cupid's bow targets employees with increasing regularity. A combination of record numbers of working women, high divorce rates, and later marriages make the workplace a prime hunting ground. Surveys show that more than 40 percent of workers say they have dated a co-worker.
"The office has become the village of the 21st century," says Helaine Olen, co-author of "Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding – and Managing – Romance on the Job." "Our social contacts come at work. It makes logical sense that you're going to date people there."
Yet even broad-minded employers often frown on the kind of supervisor-subordinate relationship Mr. Turner and his wife, Lauren, maintained. Some now require couples to sign "love contracts" to protect the company from sexual harassment lawsuits in case a relationship ends badly.
Such contracts are primarily limited to executive-level employees. "I don't think you're talking about two people in a call center," Ms. Olen says. Although no one can track the number of these documents, some employment lawyers see their popularity increasing. They are even part of a plotline on the TV sitcom "The Office."
David Ritter, a partner in employment law at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg in Chicago, calls them "consensual relationship agreements," saying, "It's not really a contract. It's an acknowledgment by two people that they're in a consensual relationship, have not been forced to be in this relationship, and understand the company's policy on sexual harassment. If either one of the people in the relationship ever claims sexual harassment as a result of this, this is pretty powerful evidence."
These documents have not yet been tested in court to see if they're valid or enforceable, attorneys say.
Some of those who have signed have been "incredibly embarrassed," Mr. Ritter says. "The company's human resources department, maybe an outside lawyer and in-house lawyers, we're all sitting around a table having a conversation about their relationship, as if they're teenagers."
That embarrassment could be minor compared with the anguish of a breakup. "I don't care what the ages of the couple are," Ritter says. "When they break up, it's as though they're teenagers.... Managers need to be sensitive to that. Co-workers can wind up being akin to high school guidance counselors."
Even so, he disagrees with companies that maintain no-dating policies, because they cannot be managed. At minimum, Ritter says, "You should never permit someone to have a relationship with someone they supervise or have input over their raises and promotions."
The tangle: When it's supervisor/supervisee
Margaret Hart Edwards, an attorney with Littler Mendelson, a labor and employment law firm in San Francisco, offers a hypothetical case. "Suppose a manager has a romance with a subordinate. It breaks up. Five or six months later, the manager has to make a decision among two or three subordinates. If he gives a promotion to the person he used to be [dating], people might say he gave it to her in order to win her back. If he gives it to one of the other people, she can say, 'He didn't give it to me because I broke up with him.' "