Love… and Lawsuits
On Valentine’s Day, a business lawyer’s fancy turns to love … and lawsuits. Here are the typical scenarios:
- Joe begins a dating relationship with Sally. Joe is the head of the department in which Sally works. After six months, Sally breaks up with Joe and begins to date someone else. Joe is hurt and angry, and wants Sally back. Sally contends that Joe has withheld promotions and assignments from her because she will no longer date him, and she brings a sexual harassment claim against the company.
- Same deal, except Joe and Sally get along swimmingly. Sally gets a hefty raise and a nice promotion. The other women in the department bring a sexual harassment suit against the company, claiming that the company promotes an atmosphere in which only women who date their supervisors can get ahead.
There is no practical way to prevent office romances, but employers need to implement and scrupulously enforce policies that, in particular, deal with romances between managers and those they manage – the potential for favoritism (if the romance is going well) or adverse treatment (hell hath no fury like a manager scorned…) is too obvious, and too dangerous. Looking the other way is not a business strategy.
Some successful approaches include the requirement that office romances within a supervisory context be disclosed to HR so that the situation can be monitored for potential problems. Many companies issue a code of conduct that applies to those in a romantic relationship, and they reserve the right to mandate transfers to other departments where practicable. Some companies try “love contracts,” in which the couple acknowledges the consensual nature of the relationship and the company policies that must be respected.
The people who claim that “love means never having to say you’re sorry” never ran a business. Nevertheless, happy Valentine’s Day.