Workplace romance and the legal aspects

Everyone’s eyes are on him as he packs his stationery and laptop into a sad little box. Jane – his now ex-girlfriend – watches him with a hard glare as he makes his way to the elevator. Even though the entire office is as silent as a graveyard, a clear message has been passed: workplace romance is a no-no. 

When I first broke into the corporate world, stories like this were commonplace. It was almost impossible to mention the term “workplace romance” without people hissing and recoiling like vampires who had been exposed to sunlight. 

Whether you’re a bachelor looking out for Ukrainian brides or a single lady trying to iron out your love life, the general consensus when it comes to workplace romance is a huge no. But why is this a taboo subject in the corporate world? 

Well, it’s simple. With the #metoo movement and cases of sexual harassment popping up in offices, most managers and employees are often worried about the legal implications of office relationships. 

Wondering what these legal aspects and implications are? Let’s find that out. 

Is workplace romance illegal? 

Since most organizations frown upon office romance and relationships, it’s pretty normal to think it’s illegal or unlawful. At least, I used to think so too, until much recently. However, the truth is that workplace romance is in no way unlawful. 

The misconception surrounding the legality of office relationships mainly stems from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment based on a victim’s membership in a protected class (e.g., the workplace) taking into account even life insurance from different diseases etc. Although this federal law helps to protect employees from facing sexual harassment, it doesn’t prohibit a consensual relationship between two coworkers.

Sure, legal issues may arise from an office relationship gone sour, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire concept of workplace romance is unlawful. 

Implications That Could Arise from Workplace Romance 

Over the years, I’ve come across coworkers, friends, and family members who are either pro-office romance or anti-office romance. While both sides certainly have valid points, it’s important to reiterate that workplace romance does not go against any federal administrative law. However, it’s also crucial that I point out the legal implications that could arise from an office relationship gone sour.

A few years ago, I had two coworkers who were in the perfect office relationship. Flowers, notes, different meetings and even fashion trends following up, chocolates would somehow find their way to the other partner’s desk. There’d be the occasional stolen kiss or hidden glances – when HR isn’t looking, of course. 

It had all the makings of the perfect fairytale story, except for one tiny problem: one partner was the other’s supervisor.

When the relationship eventually went sour (as most fairytale stories tend to), the subordinate had to hand in her notice after enduring weeks of endless bullying from her scorned supervisor. 

To answer the question that’s probably going through your mind: no, she didn’t sue. However, if she had, she’d have had a pretty strong case.

When it comes to workplace romance, some other legal issues, apart from bullying, could occur, such as:

  • Claims of sexual harassment 
  • Favoritism 
  • Unfair dismissal
  • Lack of productivity

These issues have marred workplace romance, making it difficult for most organizations to allow a relationship between two employees.

How to Navigate Workplace Romance as an Employer

I used to think that falling in love with your coworker was the most challenging corporate puzzle to navigate. However, it’s even trickier for management want to increase the team’s productivity to handle a blooming office romance without applying discriminatory policies and rules.

Fortunately, there are several measures any employer or HR personnel can take to ensure that everyone stays happy with no risks involved. Here are some of them:

A love contract

Every now and then, we hear cases of subordinates entering workplace relationships simply because they’re scared of losing their jobs. When it comes to workplace romance between a superior and a subordinate, the lines between explicit consent and involuntary consent are often blurred. This is where a love contract comes in.

A love contract is a written acknowledgment and agreement signed by both parties, confirming that the relationship is purely consensual and aligns with the company’s anti-harassment policy.

It helps to mitigate the risk of an employee alleging that a relationship was non-consensual or involuntary. 

Clear policies

I’ve seen cases where organizations outrightly banned workplace relationships, and I can only say one thing: it rarely works. All you’ll have is a situation where employees sneak around to have secret relationships with each other. To protect the company’s interests without being discriminatory, workplaces should develop a clear policy that entails the following details:

  1. Supervisors should either be banned from dating subordinates, or both parties should sign a love contract.
  2. Employees have to divulge any workplace relationship to management
  3. A ban on public displays of affection at work
  4. Strict rules on harassment and bullying
  5. Disciplinary measures for offenders, regardless of their status in the workplace. 
  6. No infringement on employees’ private lives

Final Thoughts

Workplace romance is no different from regular relationships. The only difference is that it could come with legal implications that could spell danger for any company. However, with clear policies in place, employees can have their fairytale romance without causing any liability to the company.

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