Do the words “workplace” and “romance” go together? What are some of the pitfalls with intimate relationships in the workplace? How does social media affect these romances and workplaces? In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, this article focuses on relationships in the workplace, and what employers and employees should consider when falling in love (or having more than just a platonic relationship) with a co-worker.
The Birds and the Bees
Some might say workplace romances are natural – a simple consequence of being a human being. This is so because employees in all types of jobs spend most of their waking moments at work developing professional and personal connections with their colleagues, clients and business-partners. Frequently, co-workers have a lot in common: similar income levels, similar educational background, similar intellectual interests, and the firsthand ability to commiserate and support one another through workplace stresses and drama. As a result, it is not uncommon that relationships between co-workers evolve from platonic to romantic.
Don’t just take my word for it. In Vault.com’s 2013 Office Romance Survey, 56% of respondents admit to having had an office romance. According to the survey, about 17% of those office romances developed into long term relationships, and 3% resulted in wedding bells. But, most office romances (21%) were casual situations. And, even if the office relationship was not physically intimate, 44% of respondents said they had an office “husband” or “wife,” with whom they share lunch and meaningful conversation. (If you wish to take the 2014 Vault.com Office Romance Survey, you can do so here.)
Social Media in Workplace Romances
Social media use in workplace romances should cause a moment of panic to employers and employees. For employees, it might seem cute or “hot” to send your romantic co-worker a sexy text (sexting). Of course, if such sexting is unwelcome, then you may have a sexual harassment situation on your hands. But, even if the back-and-forth sexting is completely consensual, there are so many pitfalls that an employee should consider before sending intimate texts, pictures, or Facebook posts. Some of these issues include: does the employer have a policy prohibiting workplace romances, or at least requiring the disclosure of workplace romances?; are you sexting on a company-provided device or your own device?; are you prepared for fallout if/when the romance turns sour and the other person (still your co-worker, or client, or professional colleague) retains possession of your sexts?
There are many high profile politicians and other famous folks who have served as prime examples of the toxic fallout that can occur with couples mix social media with sex. While most of us do not live lives like those politicians and entertainers, even the most (seemingly) innocent pictures/posts can ruin careers and relationships.
Take for example what happened to Laraine Cook. Ms. Cook was a girls basketball coach for Pocatello High School in Idaho. She was in a consensual romantic relationship with another high school sports coach in the same school district (not the same school, even). The couple eventually got engaged. They took a vacation together and she posted a picture on her Facebook account in July. The picture shows the couple, in swimsuits, in front of a lake, and he is touching her breast. According to Ms. Cook, the picture was on her Facebook page for less than 24 hours. In October, the school district fired Ms. Cook. The district told Ms. Cook that she was fired because the district deemed the photo to be “immoral.” Interestingly, only Ms. Cook was fired because the photo was posted on her Facebook page, and not on her fiance’s as well.
So, besides not using social media, what can employees do to protect themselves, and what can employers do to help their employees as well as to protect the business?
Prohibiting All Workplace Romances Isn’t A Good Option
An ban on workplace romances is not a good idea. First, how can employer effectively enforce such a policy? Such a policy will drive employees to hide (even more than they do so now) their relationship and will create an adversarial mentality in the workplace. Furthermore, some jurisdictions have laws that protect employees applicable here. For example, the California Constitution protects employees’ right to privacy, and significantly, California Labor Code Section 96(k) explicitly protects “lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises.” Thus, if the romance does not take place in, or otherwise affect the workplace, employers may be prohibited in banning such relationships entirely.
Two Policies That Do Make Sense
While there are more, below are two of the more sensible options for employers to implement, and for employees to consider when cupid’s arrow strikes.
Conflicts of Interest
Employers can direct employees to avoid conflicts of interest. With respect to workplace romances, the most common types of conflicts of interest arises when a manager/supervisor is dating a subordinate or when a client/customer is dating an employee. Employers have legitimate concerns that such relationships will jeopardize business judgment, lead to pillow-talk (breach of confidentiality) and reveal poor judgment exhibited by the manager/supervisor or employee. Obviously, other concerns include sexual harassment and/or perceived favoritism.
Consequently, employers should consider a policy curtailing relationships between supervisor/subordinate, particularly when they are in the same “chain of command,” and/or between employee/client. This policy can require the dating employees to disclose relationships that may create a conflict of interest, and the policy should make clear that the employer may take appropriate action to eliminate any conflict of interest (like transferring one of the employees).
Professional Behavior/Code of Conduct
Employers may also create or strengthen policies that promote professional behavior in the workplace. Public displays of affection and romantic/sexual banter even between consenting co-workers may make other employees uncomfortable, can be considered unprofessional and may give rise to complaints of sexual harassment. Any policy on professional behavior should also encompass the professional use of social media, email, texting and other forms of communication, and can be combined with a “Usage Policy.”
Don’t Overlook the Obvious
While there are other unique possible policies (including informed consent/love contract policies), employers must remember some of the basics including anti-harassment policies and training. Employers are in the cross hairs when a workplace romance ends. Simply, a lovesick employee can claim that the workplace romance was actually non-consensual, or that it was created within a hostile work environment. Anti-harassment policies and training, in addition to the above policies, will help employers defend against such claims.
Information provided on this website is not legal advice, nor should you act on anything stated in this article without conferring with the Author or other legal counsel regarding your specific situation.