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Workplace romances can cause substantial legal difficulties for an employer. When romantic feelings are involved, the possibility for ill will is high. If an employer is not careful to protect itself, it can become financially liable in the process. For this reason, many employers maintain fraternization policies that prohibit workplace romances. Though these policies seem logical to protect the employer, there can also be disadvantages to their implementation.
Sexual Harassment Prevention
The major rationale behind a workplace dating policy is protection from harassment liability. The end of a relationship can bring potential problems, including accusations of sexual harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that employers can be held liable for cases of sexual harassment when the employer does not have an adequate policy in place. Even if the allegations turn out to be false, employers can spend a great deal of amount of money to fight the case. In an effort to avoid liability, many employers choose to have a broad harassment policy that prohibits office romance. The advantage of these policies is that the employer has some protection in its effort to prohibit harassment in the workplace.
An office relationship involving a supervisor and subordinate can elicit suspicions of favoritism. Allegations of favoritism can be costly for a company. If a high ranking employee is giving special favors to a romantic interest, it can undermine the organization's trustworthiness in the eyes of other employees. Even if the raise is deserved, the existence of a relationship calls the appropriateness into question. After the relationship is over, problems may arise if the supervisor ever needs to discipline the subordinate.
Favoritism may also occur among peer romances. One member of the relationship may take on the work responsibilities of her partner, in an effort to boost his job performance or prevent disciplinary action. This behavior can cause accountability problems for management and becomes particularly difficult if the relationship ends badly. A general workplace prohibition on romances can be effective to prevent these problems.
The Notification Policy
Some companies choose to use a notification type of dating policy, where the participants must notify the employer of any romantic relationship that develops. In some companies, the policy further requires that the couple sign a "love contract," stating that the relationship is consensual and acknowledging the company's prohibition of favoritism. The disadvantage of these policies is their intrusiveness into the personal lives of employees. Critics argue that employers using these policies are overstepping their boundaries.
Definition of Romance
A problem with workplace romance policies is the difficulty in defining what types of relationships are prohibited. A policy can be overly broad or not broad enough. The employer must ask what behavior it wants to include. If the policy is too specific, it may not prevent an undesired behavior. If it is too far reaching, the employer may create a workplace environment that discourages employees from forming appropriate professional relationships with one another.
Erika Winston is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, with more than 15 years of writing experience. Her articles have appeared in such magazines as Imara, Corporate Colors E-zine and Enterprise Virginia. She holds a Juris Doctor degree from Regent University and a Masters in public policy from New England College.
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