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.'

Scott Wallace
Scott Wallace

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.

"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.' "

Some companies simply include a conflict-of-­interest policy in the employment handbook. It typically provides that supervisors cannot be involved in romantic relationships with subordinates, says Brian LaFratta, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Chicago. "If there is such a relationship, the company doesn't want to say, 'You have to break up.' One of the parties has to transfer to a different department or branch."

He calls the policy problematic. "It disrupts the workforce and requires companies to replace an employee anytime a relationship develops," he says. "Sometimes the only solution is for one to resign. It's a good idea, but in practice it may cause morale problems and cause people to try harder to hide their relationships."

Even without a contract, some companies find ways to protect employees and themselves. Zachary Hummel, a partner with Bryan Cave law firm in New York, tells about a group of restaurants that employed many young people. Although owners disapproved of managers dating waitresses, they didn't forbid it. They said, "If you date the help, you have to tell us. If you don't tell us, you will be terminated." During a romance, they moved the manager to another local restaurant. "If you have true affection, there's a certain sacrifice you'll make to continue the relationship," Mr. Hummel says.

Whatever the arrangement, Francie Dalton, a workplace behavioral expert in Columbia, Md., believes it is "not smart" to allow romantic relationships at work. "There are always issues of trust, confidentiality, and favoritism with office romance. The people who are involved always think they can hide their romance. It's naive."

She makes a possible exception for lower-level employees, when neither party supervises anyone, and when their positions do not make them privy to anything confidential. "But it's not OK to make office romance OK for one hierarchical level and not OK for another." At every level, she warns, "You're going to lose productivity."

Still, when Olen and co-author Stephanie Losee researched their book, they found employers who either did not mind or actively encouraged relationships. "Southwest Airlines is famous for encouraging and promoting them," Olen says. "They say, 'We consider ourselves a family.' "

Office romances may actually boost productivity

She adds that some evidence shows that productivity actually goes up when love is in bloom. "When you have a best friend in the office, you tend to feel better about coming to work. Anything that increases your emotional commitment to work is generally not a bad thing."

Turner of Kaye/Bassman International Corp., agrees. "Our retention is higher because of it," he says.

For those involved in workplace liaisons, rules of dec­orum apply. Just because you met your partner at work doesn't mean you should conduct your romance at the office, Olen says. "Don't hang around their cubicle. Don't have coffee with them every day. Don't involve them in your workplace imbroglios. Most important, stay away from e-mail and instant messages. If you're doing it on the company phone and e-mail, they're not private."

Taking a long-range view, Ms. Edwards says, "Office romance in the workplace is never going to go away. Employers cannot realistically come up with policies that prohibit romance. It's not practical, and it runs contrary to human nature."

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