Dawn Weinberger, Freelance Writer

Romance at work

Employers strive to avoid liability

By Dawn Weinberger

Romantic relationships are inevitable in almost every work environment. Employees are on the job for at least eight hours a day, five days a week, spending hour after hour with the same group of people -- it is only natural that at some point Bob from engineering will fall for Mary from finance. In fact, just last February CareerBuilder.Com released a survey stating that 56 percent of people have dated a co-worker, and 14 percent of those have dated a boss.

"We as a society continue to spend more time at work, and that is where you develop those relationships," said Kathleen Dent, a partner in the employment department at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, a law firm in downtown Portland.

And while the amorous worker's main concern is whether the object of his or her affection will agree to a date, employers themselves have a greater worry: sexual harassment complaints. For example, someone might claim they were coerced into a relationship or told that the relationship was a condition of a raise or promotion. "The law is clear that the employer has an obligation to provide a workplace that is free from harassment," Dent said, and companies expose themselves to liability if they fail to investigate and remedy grievances.

But employers can protect the company and their workers by addressing the issue of dating up front, with either a formal or informal policy, before a problem ensues (often this is covered in the employee handbook or in sexual harassment awareness classes). Some companies go so far as to require dating employees to sign a so-called "love contract," which is essentially a statement of disclosure that informs the employer of the relationship, confirms that it is consensual and acknowledges that the dating employees are aware of sexual harassment policies and procedures. Dent agrees that in some circumstances a love contract can be helpful -- but only if used with caution, as they can lower morale.

"Some people may take offense that they are being asked to sign this contract when they feel that their personal life and work life should be kept separate, and just because they are dating a co-worker doesn't mean the company should be inserting [itself] into the relationship," she said.

Paul Buchanan, a partner and employment lawyer in the Portland office of Stoel Rives LLC, agrees that the basic idea behind a love contract is a good one, but calls the contract itself a "silly gimmick" that tends to put employees off. Instead of suggesting use of the document, he tells his corporate clients to simply communicate their expectations and make policies clear.

Electro Scientific Industries Inc., a provider of production laser systems, takes that approach. Employees at the Cedar Mill company are free to date co-workers, and need not sign a contract of any kind. However, they are encouraged to disclose their involvement, said Ellen Raim, ESI's vice president of human resources. Raim's main concern is making sure that dating situations don't result in favoritism or conflicts of interest -- something that can easily happen if a manager gets involved with a subordinate. If this scenario occurs, Raim said she tries to "change the reporting situation," so that the subordinate is no longer under the direct supervision of his or her significant other, a wise solution according to some attorneys.

"It is impossible for a supervisor to credibly evaluate their employee and effectively manage them if they are in a romantic relationship," said Buchanan, who recommends requiring the involved parties to disclose the relationship. Besides providing an opportunity to rearrange the reporting structure, this also allows the company to make sure the manager involved understands that the relationship cannot be used as a condition for employment, and the subordinate is in the relationship voluntarily.

Relationships between peers -- workers of equal rank in the organization -- are easier to manage, Buchanan said, as long as their behavior remains professional.

"If their conduct is appropriate and the relationship is relatively invisible then I think there is no issue," he said. "But if there are obvious displays of affection, I think it is the right thing for them to get talked to."

Even though employment attorneys like Buchanan and Dent consider relationships between equal co-workers relatively benign, some employers still choose to ban it. "Some companies have no-dating policies, and if a relationship develops one of them will have to leave the company," Dent said. "And it is legal to prohibit dating, but from a moral perspective is it practical? You might lose some good quality employees that you don't want to lose."

Buchanan considers such policies unrealistic. First, they open companies up to the possibility of marital status discrimination claims, he said. They also encourage people to date behind the bosses' back. "You [will] drive all the relationships underground so nobody knows about them," he said.

Raim, for one, isn't willing to take that risk.

"When you start putting [strict] rules into place, you start looking like the police," she said.

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