Q&A with Allen Hutson
Romance in workplace discussed
Q: Valentine's Day comes later this month. What federal and/or state regulations address relationships in the workplace?
A: There are no specific state or federal regulations. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, contains broad prohibitions against discrimination in the workplace, including sex discrimination. Sexual harassment falls within the purview of Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances; requests for sexual favors; and/or any verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
A workplace relationship that goes wrong, as most eventually do, can implicate Title VII and the liability that comes with violations of it. A heartbroken employee may allege that a relationship that was once consensual was not voluntary, and he or she was forced to participate. An allegation of this nature likely would lead to a sexual harassment and/or hostile work environment claim against the employer pursuant to Title VII.
Q: What rights do employees have to engage in workplace relationships?
A: They don't have explicit rights. Some employers ban workplace relationships, and claims by employees that such restrictions violate their constitutional right to privacy have been almost uniformly disregarded by the courts.
Q: Are there considerations for supervisor/employee relationships?
A: Relationships between supervisors and employees are fertile ground for potential litigation. Typically, supervisors have complete control, or at least significant input, into their employees' employment conditions, including, but not limited to, job assignments, discipline, promotions, wage increases/decreases and termination of employment. This abundance of power creates the perfect scenario for an employee to allege that his or her relationship with the supervisor was coerced. Moreover, other employees not engaged in the relationship may have a claim against the employer based on the supervisor's perceived favoritism to the employee engaging in the relationship and/or an uncomfortable, sexually charged work atmosphere.
To curb these risks, some employers place an absolute prohibition on relationships between supervisors and employees, or at the very least prohibit relationships between supervisors and the employees they directly supervise. Those employers who don't implement a complete ban may require the supervisor and employee to sign a “love contract,” which essentially states that the relationship is consensual, confirms the employees are aware of the employer's sexual harassment prevention and discrimination policy, that the supervisor will not play favorites and, if something happens in the relationship that is unwanted, the employees will use the employer's complaint procedure.
Q: What policies can employers implement regarding workplace relationships?
A: Aside from the aforementioned “love contracts,” an employer first and foremost should have in place a well-written sexual harassment prevention policy. Employers also must ensure all employees are aware of their rights and their responsibilities under the policy. A sexual harassment prevention policy is typically an employers' first, and in most cases, most important, line of defense against a sexual harassment claim.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER