Workplace romance is a touchy subject. Employers tread lightly on banning relationships between coworkers because it can give the appearance of interfering in the personal lives of employees. On the other hand, workplace romances can be the source of problems if a staff member becomes a manager's paramour. The possibilities for workplace romances leading to sexual harassment complaints and creating a hostile work environment are reasonable concerns, but even consensual relationships between coworkers can affect employee morale, job satisfaction and employee productivity.
Title VII Rules and Consensual Workplace Relationships
The possibility of unlawful sexual harassment comes to mind when employers implement policies concerning relationships between coworkers. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission publishes guidance on consensual workplace romances that lead to favoritism; however, it's unclear what the EEOC's position is on workplace romances that underlie complaints of a hostile work environment. EEOC states: "It is the Commission's position that Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] does not prohibit isolated instances of preferential treatment based upon consensual romantic relationships. An isolated instance of favoritism toward a "paramour" (or a spouse or a friend) may be unfair, but it does not discriminate against women or men in violation of Title VII, since both are disadvantaged for reasons other than their genders."
Workplace Relationship Agreements
While this practice is considered forward-thinking by some human resources professionals, constructing workplace relationship agreements is a nightmare for others. Enforcing a policy that essentially waives either party's right to complain of sexual harassment through engaging in a consensual relationship is tricky. The ramifications of such an agreement are unknown because a workplace relationship might end for any number of reasons. Waiving your civil rights to file a complaint for love gone wrong can put either coworker in an awkward position should the relationship turn ugly.
Coworkers and Common Interests
In the event there's no policy that prohibits workplace dating, an optimist would say the workplace is an ideal place to meet someone with whom you share common interests. After all, work and the people you work with consume a significant portion of your time. Finding a mate in the workplace could actually be the perfect coupling if you exercise discretion and prudence. There's no need to flaunt the relationship -- keeping your personal life separate from your work life is a must. Workplace romances have flourished, eventually leading to one person leaving the company to preserve the relationship and an element of professionalism. That said, meeting someone in the workplace could be less problematic if the couple's future doesn't include working together forever.
Many employers protect their assets by prohibiting all romantic relationships because they don't want to be put in the position of policing the relationship or dealing with the aftermath of a relationship that sours. In addition to prohibiting relationships between a manager and employee, some companies also prohibit family members from working in the same department or in supervisor-subordinate roles, for obvious reasons. Speaking of family relationships, nepotism is strictly prohibited in public-sector employment and in many private-sector work environments.
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- CNN Justice: Can Consensual Workplace Sex Create a Hostile Environment?
- Find Law: Regulating Work Place Romances
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Policy Guidance for Employer Liability under Title VII for Sexual Favoritism
- Princeton University, Office of Human Resources: 5.2.2 Nepotism & Personal Relationships in the Workplace
- The New York Times: Word for Word/Consensual Relationship Agreements; For Water Cooler Paramours, The Ties That (Legally) Bind