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Flirting with Disaster: Workplace Dating and Its Potential Consequences

By: Ariana B. Bianchi

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The possibility for attraction always exists among co-workers, and the temptation to take a working relationship further may seem particularly strong if two people, who spend a great deal of time together already, also feel that they have limited opportunities to meet other people outside of work. While it may seem harmless, workplace romance may result in disastrous consequences and should be approached cautiously.

There are many negative consequences that could result from dating in the workplace. Here are a few of them.

Complaints of Favoritism or Perceived Favoritism
Employees tend to deeply resent favoritism in the workplace. It creates a perception that good performance does not matter, and that perks and promotions are reserved for the "favorites." Employees who perceive that others are receiving preferential treatment may grow discontented, leading to an increase in turnover and associated costs.

Example: Mary is Bob's supervisor at a large manufacturing company. When Mary and Bob start a consensual relationship, they notify their company and co-workers and maintain a professional tone on the job. Bob is considered a reliable, productive employee, and Mary continues to manage him effectively. Several months into their relationship, a new higher position becomes available. Bob and three of his co-workers apply for the position, and Mary ultimately selects Bob. Even though Bob had always worked well with his co-workers, he finds that they do not want to be directed by him. The other employees believe that Bob received the promotion because of his relationship with Mary, and they refuse to cooperate. Several employees resign, and the entire company suffers.

Conflicts of Interest
Supervisors who enter into a relationship with workers under their supervision may find it difficult to discipline and evaluate such employees objectively. Thus, they will be torn between their duty to the employer and their relationship with a co-worker.

Example: Alan is Jennifer's supervisor at a local restaurant. Jennifer is a good and productive employee; however, when Alan and Jennifer start dating, Jennifer starts coming in late to work, ignoring the uniform code, and taking long breaks. Alan now finds that he is between a rock and hard place. He feels that he cannot discipline Jennifer because of their personal relationship, so he does not enforce the company rules for any of the employees. Management notices the problem, and Alan is eventually terminated.

Breaches in Confidentiality
Employers have a need to keep certain types of information confidential. If an employee were to reveal such information, it could cause great damage to the employer. Therefore, it is common for employers to require certain employees to enter into non-disclosure agreements that prohibit the employee's unauthorized release of confidential information.

Example: People who are dating tend to develop very close, trusting bonds. Linda, the HR manager of a mortgage company, has been dating Frank, a loan officer, for almost a year. As a condition of her employment, Linda signs a non-disclosure agreement in which she agrees to keep certain types of her employer's information confidential, including human resources information such as salaries and promotion schedules. Despite the fact that she is bound by a non-disclosure agreement, Linda trusts Frank and reveals other employees' salaries and promotion schedules to him. Frank, who likes to talk too much, ends up telling a few of his buddies at work what he knows. Linda's unauthorized release of confidential information constitutes a breach of her non-disclosure agreement.

The information Frank reveals to his buddies hurts workplace morale because employees begin to openly question why some workers are promoted or paid more than others. Employees now feel that management is making poor compensation and promotion decisions. Ultimately, management discovers it was Linda who revealed the information and she is terminated for violating her non-disclosure agreement.

Claims of Sexual Harassment - Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning "this for that." Quid pro quo sexual harassment refers to a coercive tradeoff where job benefits are exchanged for sexual favors. This is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Example: Jack, the manager of a shoe store, dates Kelly, one of the retail sales employees. A month later, Kelly decides to end the relationship. Jack says that if she wants to keep her job, she must continue dating him. Kelly refuses to continue her relationship with Jack, and Jack consequently fires her.

In this case, the employer may be strictly liable for a quid pro quo harassment claim brought by Kelly. This claim could financially wound the enterprise and impact the overall morale of the store.

Claims of Sexual Harassment - Hostile Work Environment
Hostile work environment harassment is defined as sexual comments or conduct that have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or that create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. A supervisor, co-worker or non-employee can commit this type of harassment. Nothing tangible about the individual's job need be affected. Frequency and severity are key issues, and isolated instances of harassment usually are not enough to constitute a violation unless the isolated instance was extremely severe.

Example: Tom and Amy, co-workers at a successful event planning company, often have to work together late at night in informal settings. Tom regularly makes sexual jokes, and often brings in sexual pictures that he shows Amy. Amy repeatedly asks him to stop, but Tom does not. Tom also begins to request sexual favors from Amy, who has started coming in late, leaving early, and not showing up to certain events in order to avoid Tom. Tom's conduct has created a hostile work environment, and his sexual conduct has made it difficult for Amy to do her job.

In this case, the employer may be liable for the hostile work environment harassment claim brought by Amy, if Amy had complained and the employer failed to take corrective action, or if the employer otherwise knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate corrective action.

Implementing a Policy
Because of the increased protections against sexual harassment, and in light of the many other risks that dating in the workplace can present, employers should consider implementing a policy that addresses a variety of issues. Here are some things to consider when drafting a policy:

Does an employer wish to bar all workplace relationships, or only those that involve supervisors and subordinates? Barring relationships between all employees may be the safest solution. However, depending upon the dynamic of the employer's workplace, it may also be unrealistic. By banning all workplace relationships, employers may have to contend with clandestine employee dating, which can still hurt employee morale and cause hardship on the company. By only barring relationships between supervisors and subordinates, employers can point to the business necessity of preventing quid pro quo harassment. Barring only relationships between supervisors and subordinates also has the advantage of reducing the possibility of claims of favoritism.

Another alternative is to allow employers to voluntarily report a workplace relationship. With a relationship reporting policy, an employer is afforded the protection of showing that a relationship between its employees was consensual at least at its conception. Employers can also show that they reminded such employees that the company's sexual harassment policy still applies to them and if their relationship ever ends and either of them feels he or she is being harassed by the other, they should report any such harassment. A reporting policy also may afford an employer the opportunity to see if one of the employees can be transferred (if possible) to another department. If a transfer is possible, the employer may be able to avoid many potential hazards that such relationships represent. If employers do decide to implement a policy of transferring employees, they should be careful to ensure that they do not enforce it in a manner that could be construed as being discriminatory (i.e., always transferring the female employee involved, transferring an employee to a position with less pay or responsibilities, etc.).

While it may not be ideal, people will continue to meet and develop personal relationships at work. Plenty of happy marriages, as well as ruined careers, have developed from an innocent water cooler encounter that turned into something more. Each organization has to evaluate its own culture and determine what type of dating policy is most appropriate.

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