Thursday, October 18, 2007

Some guidance for dealing with office romances

Good Morning America this morning posed the question, "Office Romance: Is It Worth It?" GMA gives some tips for employees thinking about getting involved with a co-worker. I'm going to discuss several of them, from the employer's perspective:

  1. Check the company policy. If your organization does not want co-workers dating each other, it is best to have a formal, written no-fraternization policy in place. Such policies can have a range of restrictions, depending on how strongly your company feels about intra-office relationships. The scenario that creates the greatest risk if a relationship goes south is a subordinate dating a manager or supervisor within the direct chain of command, or an executive. You should consider either prohibiting those relationships outright, or requiring full disclosure to HR with a signed writing by both parties stating that the relationship is consensual. For reasons that should be obvious, I prefer the former over the latter, but ultimately it is an organizational decision. Regardless, if you plan on disciplining or termination an employee for engaging in such a relationship, you best have a policy in place prohibiting the conduct that you can rely upon to support the decision. Any discipline, however, must be meted out fairly and equitably. The surest way to a discrimination lawsuit is to discipline one party to the relationship but not the other.
  2. Keep e-mail clean. Employees generally should not have any expectation of privacy in corporate e-mails or internet usage. To be clear, it is best to have a formal written policy spelling out your company's expectations about appropriate computer usage. And again, it is largely an organizational decision. Some companies do not mind reasonable computer use for personal business at work, so long as employees are getting their work done and not abusing the privilege. Others want 8 hours of work every day, with no distractions. Regardless, computer usage must always be appropriate, and inappropriate usage (dirty e-mails, pornography, etc.) must be dealt with quickly.
  3. Consider your colleagues and keep it professional. Courts are split as to whether employee favoritism as a result of a consensual relationship between two employees can create a sexual harassment cause of action for an uninvolved but negatively affected co-worker. For example, the California Supreme Court has recognized such a claim, while the Seventh Circuit has rejected it. This uncertainty in the law presents some risk for employers. The best risk management would be a blanket prohibition on all office romances, although some companies do not want to be that draconian. The next best practice is to put a policy in place that expresses your organization's protocol for office romances, uniformly apply that policy, and promptly investigate any complaints of harassment that stem from office romances or otherwise.

There is no such thing is a teflon employer. Employees can sue you at any time, and these days for just about any reason. The best you can do is have policies that match your organizational style, uniformly and neutrally apply those policies, and make the best business decisions that you can in the given circumstances. While these steps cannot prevent against a lawsuit, they will put you in the best position to defend against one if it is filed.