Cupid and the Cubicle

Workplace romance is inevitable—so be ready when love becomes a liability.

April 26, 2013

After catching up on several Mad Men episodes, I felt compelled to address consensual relationships in the workplace.

As we spend more time at work, consensual relationships will continue to develop there. As a result, credit unions must be prepared to identify and manage workplace romances to prevent liability.
Up to 40% of employees admit to having had a consensual romantic or dating relationship with a co-worker, according to—and this doesn’t include the many one-sided flirtations or crushes.
It’s not realistic to impose strict prohibitions on workplace dating. Furthermore, certain states such as New York prohibit employers from controlling employee behavior outside the workplace.
Workplace relationships can, however, create not only the risk of legal claims, such as sexual harassment and retaliation, but also allegations of favoritism and lost productivity due to distraction.
Legal claims under federal and state laws provide not only compensatory damages, but also damages for emotional distress and the payment of attorney fees for the employee who has asserted the claim. Often, the plaintiff employee will sue both the employer and the individual charged with harassing or discriminating against the plaintiff.
Employees in a truly consensual relationship will have a hard time pursuing claims of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Unfortunately, many consensual relationships end negatively, or one of the participants may not view the relationship as consensual at all. As a result, employers can face unexpected claims—and quickly find themselves unwittingly entrenched in the details of their employees’ personal lives.
To prevent liability, credit unions should:
  • Review and update their anti-harassment and antidiscrimination policies;
  • Notify employees there is a mandatory reporting process for claims of harassment, and retaliation to-ward an employee who makes a report is prohibited.
  • Implement a consensual relationship policy that requires employees to disclose to human resources or a trusted senior manager that they’re involved in a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a co-worker.
This policy should also address relationships between employees and volunteers (i.e., board members), and it should clearly state that failure to comply will result in disciplinary action.
  • Identify when a conflict of interest will exist due to a consensual relationship and how the credit union can resolve the conflict. A consensual relationship between a supervisor and subordinate, for example, will create a myriad of conflicts. Make it clear reassignment of duties may result due to such a relation-ship.
  • Require a consensual relationship agreement when a supervisor and subordinate are involved in a consensual romantic or sexual relationship. This will document that the relationship is truly voluntary and not in violation of the credit union’s antiharassment policy.
  • The agreement also should remind employees of the need to report any acts in violation of an-ti-harassment or retaliation policies.
  • Review and update other policies, such as restricting the ability to send personal text messages or emails during work hours, to limit inappropriate communications. Also, restrict the use of personal cameras which may record inappropriate contact or flirting in the workplace.
  • Examine other policies and practices, including those for expense reimbursements that allow co-workers to drink socially on the credit union’s dime. Evaluate staff’s plans, itineraries, and expenses for business travel and conferences. Set clear expectations that employees will interact professionally at all times during such events.
  • Train management to be aware of consensual relationships and educate managers on all applicable policies and best practices.
Turning a blind eye on workplace romance serves no one well. Communication through training and poli-cies can help employers avoid the unintended consequences of workplace romance.
Fortunately for credit unions, there’s only one Don Draper.

KELLY TILDEN is a shareholder at Farleigh Wada Witt, Portland, Ore.