A professional sports team head coach recently found himself in hot water over a romantic relationship with another employee of the franchise. The team’s management suspended him for an entire season for purported violations of workplace policies. What allegedly started as a consensual relationship escalated into the employee claiming that she was subjected to inappropriate comments and advances from the head coach. Media reports suggest he could ultimately lose his job as a result of this controversy. The scandal is one of the latest in the sports and entertainment industry involving potentially inappropriate romantic relationships. However, the team’s quick move to discipline highlights how employers across workplaces in the United States are treading carefully with workplace romances in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
The number of workplace romances rose in the United States during the pandemic and continue to be common. Indeed, a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests that as many as one-third of workers in the United States were currently involved in a romantic relationship with another coworker and that at least half of U.S. workers have had a crush on a coworker. Though workplace romances are not legally prohibited, such relationships are fraught with risk of claims for harassment, particularly when the relationship involves a high-level executive, manager, or supervisor, in a relationship with a lower-level employee.
Given these risks, here are three steps that employers may want to consider to effectively manage romantic relationships in their workplaces.
1. Policies Prohibiting or Strongly Advising Against Workplace Romantic Relationships
Employer policies regarding workplace relationships vary. Some prohibit them altogether, while others prohibit romantic relationships between employees and their supervisors. On the other hand, there are examples of successful workplace romances-turned long-term relationships. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that allowing employees to form genuine personal relationships can improve workplace culture and retention. Still, there is the potential that workplace relationships could lead to harassment claims or worse. Employers may want to consider a workplace policy that strongly discourages workplace romances or at least sets reasonable boundaries, such as a prohibition on managers or supervisors dating lower-level employees or only permitting relationships between employees in different departments.
2. ‘Love Contract’ Requirements
A “love contract” is an agreement between an employer and employees involved in a workplace romance whereby the employees formally disclose the relationship to the employer and acknowledge that it is consensual. Generally, the contract states that the employees have read and understand the employer’s anti-harassment policy, that the relationship is not a violation of that policy, and that the employees agree to the employer’s expectations for appropriate behavior in the workplace. However, employers may want to consider the stigma around these sorts of disclosures. Moreover, love contracts do not always offer a complete defense against harassment or hostile work environment claims.
3. Anti-Harassment Education and Training
Employers may want to consider the manner and frequency with which their policies prohibiting sexual harassment are communicated to employees. Many employers provide regular sexual harassment and unconscious bias training, and, in some states, such as California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York, trainings are required. These trainings can explain workplace policies and discuss what types of actions or comments may be inappropriate not only in the physical work setting but for co-workers interacting outside the workplace.
Effectively dealing with workplace romances can be tricky for employers, especially in the #MeToo era. Employers may want to consider the extent to which they want to prohibit or discourage such relationships in their anti-harassment policies and whether employees will be required to disclose workplace romantic relationships.