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Have You Ever Dated a Colleague at Work?

Love contracts: prenuptials to workplace romance

A love contract policy establishes workplace guidance for dating or romantically involved co-workers. The purpose of the policy is to limit the liability of an organization or private employer in the event the romantic relationship turns sour, and one party claims sexual harassment.

Increasingly, co-workers are litigating over the differential treatment an employee in a romantic relationship received from a manager or supervisor. Conversely, if that relationship sours, claims of a hostile work environment and sexual harassment often ensue.

Love contracts are used as an attempt to manage workplace relationships. It is a required document signed by the two employees in a consensual dating relationship that declares that the relationship is by consent and welcomed. The love contract also provides that should the relationship sour, disputes will be handled through a dispute resolution process, such as mediation, outside the court system.

Obviously, a love contract wouldn’t exist when one employee uses his/her position to force a relationship with another employee. That situation usually creates a sexually hostile environment in which the harassed employee ends up resigning to get away from the stress and shame their supervisor has caused them. Due to privacy issues and mental health considerations, these claims can be mediated to obtain a prompt and thoughtful resolution. Litigation exposes both the employer and employee to public risks. When an employer turns a deaf ear to complaints of sexual harassment or issues of sexual favoritism in the workplace, litigation will result.

Consider the following example:

Between 1985 and 1990, while attending college, Beth worked part time and during the summers as an ocean lifeguard for the City of Boca Raton. During this period, Beth’s immediate supervisors were Bill, David, and Robert. In 1992, Beth brought a lawsuit against Bill and David because they created a sexually hostile atmosphere by:

• making lewd remarks to female lifeguards;

• subjecting female lifeguards to unwanted touching;

• Bill once said he would never promote a woman to the rank of lieutenant;

• David told Beth, “Date me or clean toilets for a year”;

• during a job interview with a woman lifeguard, Bill said that female lifeguards had sex with their male counterparts and asked if she would do the same.

Two months before Beth resigned, a former lifeguard wrote to the city’s personnel director, complaining that Bill and David had harassed her and other female lifeguards. After an investigation, Bill and David were reprimanded.

The City of Boca Raton had failed to disseminate a copy of its sexual harassment policy, and so Beth never received it. Beth did not know how to complain and stop unwanted sexually inappropriate behavior, or how to put the city on notice that some male supervisors at work demanded sex. Certainly, knowing of the sexual harassment policy would have provided Beth a clear means for complaining.

It is interesting that the person who complained to the City of Boca Raton was a former lifeguard! Did sexual harassment force her to quit?

The example of Beth is not about a consensual relationship; it’s plain sexual harassment. There’s nothing wrong with romance, and if a romantic relationship exists, a love contract may be a helpful in recording that the relationship is welcomed, and it will provide an avenue for a resolution process if it turns sour.

To avoid a sexually hostile environment an employer should provide several avenues for complaints to be made, and policies for internal investigations resulting in appropriate action.

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