The Me Too movement and the use of its hashtag on social media has changed the way many employers should view the workplace environment. There is no question that many of the stories of assaults and harassment including sexual harassment that have emerged are truly shocking, and abusive behaviour needs to be stamped out. Workplace culture is now under the microscope like never before! One of the biggest dilemmas employers face is often the mismatches of perceptions at work where one person thinks they are flirting, while the other person feels like they are being harassed or objectivised.
The situation becomes even more complex with office romances. According to a survey by CareerBuilder, 40% of workers have dated a colleague, and one-third of those relationships end in marriage. However, office dalliances can give rise to claims of conflict of interest, bias, favouritism and harassment, and reality can really strike if the relationship sours. This scenario raises the question of whether employers (and employees) have a part to play in making sure that office romances do not affect business as usual. In addition to maintaining general policies prohibiting unacceptable workplace conduct such as harassment, employers may choose to introduce policies outlining permissible and prohibited conduct or behaviour concerning office romances.
While it is not uncommon for employers to prohibit relationships between employees, an alternative option to consider is having employees who are engaged in a consensual relationship to enter into a ‘love contract’. A love contract declares that the relationship is by consent and typically contains an acknowledgment by the employees that they will comply with the employer’s harassment and employment policies, affirmation that the relationship is voluntary, consensual and welcome, that there will be no negative impact on work due to the relationship, a commitment to maintain professionalism throughout and after the relationship ends, and no public displays of affection.
The hope is that the contract will eliminate the possibility of a later sexual harassment claim when the relationship ends, and, therefore, limit the liability of the employer. Problems may also arise when an employee wants to date a client, customer or vendor of the employer. In those circumstances, a love contract may also be appropriate to introduce clear guidelines for the employee going forward.
Sometimes the fallout of a workplace romance souring cannot be avoided. Employers need to be alive to managing the work environment to ensure that things don’t become toxic. Transferring one employee to another department (if that is possible) could be an option. If all else fails it may be necessary for one of the employees to move on. Employers should be up front about their social expectations and it is important to have clear and transparent policies about what employees are able to do. Where appropriate, employers should consider negotiating a love contract.