Love Is In The Air (and in the courtroom)

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we thought we would cover some do’s and don’ts for relationships in the workplace. First and foremost, dating between a supervisor and a subordinate should be avoided at all costs. California has strict liability standards for companies when it comes to supervisor behaviors in the workplace. Allowing dating between these two distinct employment groups is a recipe for litigation. Not only could the subordinate employee have a hostile work environment claim or quid pro quo claim (an accusation that the supervisor was exchanging employment benefits for sex/dating) but there is also the risk of a retaliation claim that lingers even after the relationship ends. If a break-up happens the employee can claim that performance management or disciplinary actions at or near the demise were really to retaliate for the ending of the relationship. Even when the two employees are not in the same line of authority, we still do not recommend that employers allow any dating between someone with supervisory authority and a subordinate. The policy of the employer should be outlined in the employee handbook to ensure the rules are clear.

Dating between peers is a bit more common, and more difficult to control. Peer-to-peer dating does not initially have as much liability; however, the work environment can be drastically altered when dating is allowed. Employees may begin to gossip, complain about perceived or actual unequal treatment, complain of public displays of affection, etc. In addition, if the relationship ends on a negative note, we may begin the cycle of issues all over again (gossip, petty behavior, refusal to work together, etc.). Employees should understand that once their personal life bleeds into work, it becomes a work issue and will be handled accordingly. This could mean discipline or termination for one or both of the parties.

Finally, if a company plans to allow dating between co-workers we recommend using a “love” contract. This contract is an agreement between the two employees that outlines expected behavior between the parties while at work, both during and after the relationship. A love contract can be integral in establishing the consensual relationship standards and used later for discipline if either party fails to follow the agreement.