As all employers know, there are risks associated with inner-office romantic relationships. Many times, the relationships will start consensually, but then will end with at least one of the individuals feeling jilted. It is not uncommon for romantic relationships to affect the work environment both while the relationship is going on and after it ends. This is only further complicated when the relationship is between a supervisor and a direct report.
Many employers have adopted anti-fraternization policies in an effort to prevent such relationships. However, as many employers have found, these policies have limited effect and can, at times, serve to keep the relationships underground only to surface when it is too late and after the jilted employee is either complaining of harassment or has filed a complaint. There is another option that employers can consider, which is a Consensual Relationship Agreement. This is an agreement which should be signed by both of the individuals involved in the relationship wherein they acknowledge that they entered into the relationship consensually, voluntarily and without any coercion or duress and attesting that their relationship will not interfere with one another’s work performance. Other helpful information which can be included is a reminder as to what conduct is appropriate in the workplace, a reminder of the policy prohibiting harassment and discrimination in the workplace and the internal complaint procedure. If the relationship is between a supervisor and a subordinate, additional language can be added to the agreement wherein the supervisor agrees not to be part of any employment decisions affecting the subordinate.
Such an agreement can help to limit (but does not necessarily eliminate) the employer’s liability in the event that the romantic relationship ends although the employer should stay alert and regularly check the status of the relationship. At the first sign that the relationship is no longer consensual and/or has deteriorated, the employer should be on alert for any possible inappropriate behavior that may lead to sexual harassment complaints such as unnecessary or uninvited visits to the ex’s workspace and/or unnecessary or uninvited telephone calls, emails and/or texts. If such behavior occurs, the employer should consider taking additional affirmative steps to remind the employees of the company’s sexual harassment policies and the internal complaint procedures.
Employers may also want to consider revamping their non-fraternization policies to include a mandatory reporting provision. Many non-fraternization policies state that workplace romances should be disclosed as soon as possible. However, most employees prefer not to disclose such relationships and may not necessarily consider their interactions with a co-worker to be a romantic relationship. Therefore, it may beneficial for an employer to clearly define a notification requirement in the policy so that there is no question as to when the mandatory disclosure provision is triggered.