Given that most Americans work long hours, it stands to reason that their coworkers often become their social network. And, whether employers like it or not, this can lead to romance blossoming between employees.
Workplace relationships have always raised a whole host of employment law issues for employers and employees alike – but it has become even more complicated against the backdrop of #MeToo. The growing awareness of the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and abuse in society is definitely a good thing, but it does make relationships between employees more complicated.
How employers treat workplace romance varies widely. Some ban it entirely, which may just drive relationships underground and merely create more problems. Others allow it but require employees to sign a so-called “love contract,” that stipulates the employees are in a consensual relationship and understand the employer’s policies on the issue.
It is not uncommon, either, for employees to be fired for getting involved with colleagues, particularly if one or both employees are married. The Ninth Circuit, for example, recently heard a case about a police officer who was fired for having a relationship with another married officer. The Ninth Circuit sided with the officer, finding that her dismissal violated her constitutional right to private, off-duty intimate association and that the employer had not demonstrated the relationship affected job performance. Still, cases such as this should send a warning signal to employees that pursuing relationships with co-workers can have significant consequences, including termination.
What Employees Should Know about Workplace Romance
Given how complicated this issue is, here is some general advice to any employee considering dating a coworker.
Know Your Company’s Policies
It is essential that employees understand all of a company’s workplace policies, but this is especially the case when it comes to relationships between co-workers. As noted above, employers differ on how they approach this issue, so it is important to know the exact policy at your specific company. This will generally lay out the responsibilities of both the employer and employees and any steps that must be taken.
There may also be specific policies related to whether supervisors can date subordinates. Some companies, such as Google, even stipulate that a worker can only ask a colleague out once. An ambiguous answer is seen as “no,” and the worker can’t ask again. This is designed specifically to address issues of workplace harassment and intimidation.
Keep Things Private Early On
Two coffee dates and a midnight showing of “Star Wars” do not a relationship make. While it’s not usually advisable to hide a relationship once things get serious, keeping things private in the early stages is probably wise. For one thing, it will spare coworkers the scrutiny of office drama. For another, if things fizzle out quickly, management will have been alerted for no reason.
Keep Things Professional
While an employer likely would not terminate employees solely for dating, if the relationship interferes with their performance, or the performance of others, this may give a company grounds for termination. So, it’s best to keep things professional at work.
The employees themselves should also take seriously the issue of what will happen in the workplace if the relationship sours. This can be devastating for the individuals involved, and disruptive to the rest of the company – again giving an employer grounds for dismissal.
Know that You Will Likely Have to Visit HR
Once a relationship looks like it is going somewhere, both employees should be prepared to go to Human Resources or someone with similar responsibilities to disclose it and discuss next steps. The employer may have the employees sign a love contract or other agreement that lays out an understanding between the company and the workers regarding the relationship.
Know Your Rights
Employers are often very nervous about workplace romance and can take serious steps to curb it. This includes disciplining or even terminating employees who engage in relationships with coworkers.
This is why understanding the employer’s specific policies is so important for any employees who are considering a relationship. Any adverse action by the employer should be taken in accordance with those policies.
If you are disciplined or fired just for dating a colleague and the action violates your employer’s policies – or the law – you may be able to pursue a wrongful termination claim against the company.
A good first step would be to consult with a member of the Employment Litigation Group at Sommers Schwartz who can discuss the particulars of your situation and give guidance as to whether you may have a claim.