“One of American society's most cherished beliefs is that the workplace is — or should be — asexual,” wrote Yale Law School professor Vicki Schultz, a belief she traces to American prudishness and management gurus. Sexual harassment policies, she noted, “now provide an added incentive and an increased legitimacy for management to control and discipline relatively harmless sexual behavior.”
To control such workplace behavior, employers sometimes either discourage or ban intimate relationships among employees, Schultz wrote. But such policies are probably unrealistic, says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at Career Builder.com, one of the country's largest online job-search sites. Work is where “many people spend most of their time and form most of their acquaintances,” she says.
CareerBuilder publishes an annual office romance survey conducted by Harris Interactive. This year, 38 percent of 7,000 respondents nationwide said they have dated a co-worker at least once in their careers, and nearly a third of those workers said their office romance led to marriage, “something we didn't see as much a generation ago,” says Haefner. The hospitality industry — lodging, restaurants and tourism — saw the most workplace romances, with nearly half of respondents saying they had dated a co-worker. Financial services was a close second.
Workplace romance is fine, says Haefner, as long as “romance never gets in the way of professionalism, fairness and, of course, business.”
Romance between bosses and subordinates gives employers the most pause. According to the CareerBuilder survey, one in five of those who dated on the job said they had dated their boss. More than one in four had dated someone higher up the corporate ladder. But because of potential conflict-of-interest issues, “Employers with the best practices in place do not allow a supervisor and a subordinate to be in a dating relationship,” says Ingrid Fredeen, director of content development at ELT, a provider of online training products in San Francisco.
For instance, says Fredeen, suppose “I'm a supervisor and I need to pick one employee to go on this really fabulous trip that's going to be with a client, and it's a great career opportunity … and I choose the one I'm dating. Is that a legitimate decision?” Such a situation is bound to create “a sense of favoritism and distrust in the organization.”
The other concern, she says, is the potential for a quid pro quo-style harassment claim. If the relationship sours, the employee may claim that he or she was forced into the relationship because of the power dynamic. The alleged victim may also claim that anything negative that happens post-breakup was in retaliation for breaking up.
On the other hand, Fredeen says, banning romance between co-workers who do not have a supervisor-subordinate relationship would be “a bit aggressive,” because potential company liability would be less of a problem.
Some employers require supervisor-subordinate couples to sign a “love contract.” According to Philadelphia employment-law attorneys Jonathan Bloom and A. Nicole Stover, such contracts typically state that a relationship is consensual, both parties will behave professionally and there will be no preferential treatment.
But contracts raise several practical concerns. If the relationship is not disclosed, human resources personnel can be placed “in the untenable position of approaching employees with proposed contracts to sign based on mere office rumor,” said Bloom and Stover. And at what point, they ask, should the couple be asked to sign such a contract. “When they sneak away for their first happy hour?”
“A love contract is merely evidence of intent,” says Fredeen. “It doesn't shield the employer, it just challenges the credibility of the person who is now saying I felt coerced into the relationship and the employer should now be strictly liable.”
Of course, the employee could also say that she or he was coerced into signing the love contract.
— Barbara Mantel