Address consensual work relationships with ‘love contracts’

It's better to confront workplace romances with a plan, rather than taking a hands-off approach. Photo credit: Getty Images/grinvalds

As all hospitality-management professionals know, the notoriously long hours mean that the lines between work and play often become blurred. In addition, today’s technology also continuously connects employees to their workplace.

For these reasons among others, smart managers should revisit their workplace romance policy and personnel manual to ensure it recognizes the new realities of dating. This might mean considering the inclusion of a policy on consensual relationship agreements, also known as “love contracts.”

While working and socializing together encourages platonic friendships, potentially increasing productivity, creating a culture of camaraderie and decreasing turnover, it can also result in the development of consensual romantic relationships between employees. With the development of these relationships comes the potential for legal claims of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and favoritism among employees. Not only are workplace romance policies important to creating a culture of openness and honesty, but they are also an essential part of protecting the company against legal claims.

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Under the terms of these agreements, in the event a consensual relationship arises between a supervisory and subordinate employee, it must be reported to a designated HR professional, and the parties must sign an agreement acknowledging that the relationship is consensual and that they will notify HR in the event of a change in the relationship status. While much of this rests on the employees and supervisors being forthright with information, being able to point to a policy that requires reporting of such relationships is a necessary first step to protecting employers from legal claims.

The legal standard for sexual harassment requires employers to take “prompt remedial action” upon becoming aware of a sexual harassment allegation. With a consensual relationship agreement in place, an extra level of protection is provided to make sure the subordinate employee cannot later claim the relationship was non-consensual, thereby exposing the employer to liability.

While difficulties can arise when a relationship transitions from a consensual to a nonconsensual nature, with the presence of these agreements, the employer can say that they have established a “clear line rule” for reporting, which demonstrates they are attempting to protect employees.

Successfully dealing with this type of relationship starts with a personnel manual with a consensual workplace romance policy, providing a designated point of contact for reporting workplace romances and identifying the workplace romances that are required to be reported. Legal counsel should be consulted to ensure that employee manuals comply with applicable local, state and federal requirements.

Molly R. Gwin is a senior associate at Isaac Wiles in Columbus, Ohio.

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