Q&A with Adam Childers
Romance in workplace can pose hazards for workers, employers
Q: What policies should employers consider regarding workplace romances?
A: Workplace relationships can lead to claims of harassment, discrimination and retaliation, which means employers would be prudent to implement and enforce policies that are designed to stop these problems in their tracks. For starters, it's a great idea to have a sexual harassment policy that both defines the kind of verbal and non-verbal conduct that constitutes sexual harassment and informs employees how to report this kind of behavior. The policy also should assure employees of non-retaliation for making a harassment complaint. Companies may want to even prohibit fraternization between employees. At the least, a policy forbidding a consensual romantic relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate should be considered. As an alternative, you can enforce a policy that requires a supervisor who's dating a subordinate to be removed from his or her line of supervision. Finally, at higher levels, companies can use “love contracts” to spell out the obligations of the paramours to report the end of the relationship and affirm its consensual and non-harassing nature.
Q: How does the Supreme Court's new definition of “supervisor” impact relationships?
A: Last summer, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Vance v. Ball State University that has an impact on sexual harassment cases. Specifically, the court held that a supervisor is any employee who has the authority to, “take tangible employment actions against the victim,” including causing a, significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different “responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” This new definition is more limited than what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggested. It's important for employers because when supervisor-subordinate harassment is alleged, there are only a few legal defenses available to an employer, as opposed to claims of harassment between co-employees, where a larger array of defenses are available.
Q: What rights do employees have to pursue romantic relationships with co-workers?
A: It really depends on the rules of the workplace. In the absence of any policies or procedures dictating who, what, when and how fellow employees may fraternize, employees are left to their own devices when it comes to matters of amore. That's exactly why employers shouldn't let Cupid run the workplace, no matter how tender-hearted they are.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER