Love by the Rules: Workplace Romance

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office romanceRight off the bat we’re going to make it clear that this article in no way is meant to represent or provide legal advice. That should have gotten your attention – as should an office romance at your small business.

Before thinking “I’ve got a policy against that” and clicking out, you might want to read on as, while it isn’t legal advice, you’re sure to encounter some food for thought that just might save your business.

Outside of online match making services, the workplace has a very good chance to hold the title as a close second for where many (more than half) employed people meet romantic partners.

  • People spend about 5.6 more time at work than they do “socializing.”
  • Vault’s 2011 Office Romance Survey indicated 59% of respondents had engaged in an office romance

Since people who are employed are spending more time working than anything else it certainly shouldn’t come as any surprise to small business owners that, not only is it a possibility that they will at one time or another be signing the paychecks of two people romantically involved, it is likely they will be dealing with employees engaged in a romantic relationship at one time or another.

Like I said, I’ve Got a Policy Against That

In a February 2010 article published on Mark Kluger, at the time chair of labor and employment practice at Mandelbaum and Salsburg and now partner at Kluger Healy, advised NOT to have a policy against office romances. His reasoning was pretty logical – policies against relationships tend not to bode well with employees as they can appear to be too intrusive on employee’s private lives. Such policies not only can cause resentment that can impact employee morale and loyalty, but Kluger went so far as to say you don’t want to create a “Romeo and Juliet” situation as that can cause the relationship to “go further underground” – which can definitely cause some serious issues.

No matter if your small business has an office policy regarding office romances or not, they can definitely cause problems, such as:

  • Distracting, annoying, or offending other employees
  • An employee may sue stating that an employee dating a supervisor was unfairly promoted or received a raise without merit
  • When a relationship between a supervisor and subordinate ends, and the subordinate receives a less-than stellar (even when deserved) review after the breakup that employee may sue
  • In a relationship with a supervisor, the subordinate employee may sue stating it was a “quid pro quo” situation where a promotion or raise was offered in exchange for the relationship
  • If one of the partners in a relationship that has been “split up” by the business owner via transferring them to another department feels it is a “demotion” they may sue

An Ounce of Prevention May Save You from a Courtroom of Cure

Rather than having “a policy against that” Kluger suggests small business owners obtain employment practices liability insurance – which can be expensive, but much less expensive than attorney fees as well as any punitive judgments, both of which have the potential to literally close the doors of a small business.

While he does not advise policies as to office romances per se, along with insurance, Kluger does emphasize the importance of sexual harassment training, which is especially important to managers as they can be sued individually along with the employer. Finally, Kluger’s experience is that clear and open communication (i.e. letting employees know that public displays of affection or “sexual talk” will not be tolerated in the workplace) by a small business owner with the employees involved goes a long way for avoiding issues should the relationship fail (which is quite likely going to be the case.)

Issues surrounding offices romances can become a “bigger” problem for the small business owner than for a “big company.” For example, in small businesses people often work in close quarters, not to mention there may be no other “department” to transfer anyone to when a relationship fails and the employees no longer get along or want to work together.

Whether you decide to keep your small businesses’ “policy against that” or not, small business owners should seek legal counsel as laws and regulations regarding office romances as well as sexual harassment can differ depending on your location and jurisdiction. A smart small business owner will obtain professional advice regarding the best possible protections against being sued as a consequence of an office romance they know about – or don’t know about.
What you don’t know can hurt you.

Last modified: March 28, 2013
Annie Kile

This story is part of our Small Business Corner, a peek into the life and trials of small business owners.

Category: Small Business, Small Business Corner, small business owners, Tips

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