Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nothing can go wrong when employees date each other, right?

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I bring you a story of love, romance … and sexual harassment (what else?).

Sanders v. DaimlerChrysler Corp. starts out like any great love story. Girl meets boy on the assembly line of the local automobile plant. They date for two years. Then, she tells him she doesn’t want to continue their relationship. How does boy respond? Like any alleged harasser, he says, “I can do something to your job.” And, she takes him at his word (he’s a union steward after all). When she has job-related issues returning from a medical leave, she sues the company for, among other things, sexual harassment. Ultimately, this story ended well for the employer; it won the case at trial. But, it cost the company seven years of litigation, more than a dozen depositions, countless motion practice, a costly trial, and a trip to the court of appeals.

I’m not here to tell you that you should forbid your employees from dating. Far from it. The heart is going to go where the heart wants to go. In other words, if your employees want to date, they will — with or without a policy forbidding their relationships and dalliances. Instead, look at workplace romances as an opportunity to educate your employees about the ins and outs of your harassment policy. Train your employees about what is and is not appropriate workplace conduct between the sexes. Focusing on conduct (and misconduct) instead of the relationships will provide your employees the necessary tools to avoid the types of problems that arose in Sanders, which, in turn, will help your organization avoid the litigation expenses those problems often cause.

Happy Valentine’s Day