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Tips for Handling the Legal Dangers of Workplace Romance

Dating and romances between coworkers is common. Aside from lost productivity and lost efficiencies created by both successful and unsuccessful romantic entanglements, the behavior generates many legal dangers and challenges to the employer, including the following:

  • Perceptions by others of favoritism when the relationship is going well
  • Perceptions of retaliation if the relationship ends or romantic overtures are rejected
  • Possible claims of harassment and coercion, made worse if the romantic partners are at different levels within the hierarchy
  • Real and perceived harassment when romantic overtures are extended
  • Possible hostile working environments created by a robust in-the-workplace dating environment
  • Privacy intrusions if limits are imposed and/or if complaints are investigated
  • Liability risks for off-the-clock sex-related harassment, discrimination, and criminal behaviors

All of these create legitimate litigation and liability risks for any San Diego business. How to respond is on a spectrum from banning workplace romances on one end to strict rules and regulations in the middle to complete laissez-faire at the other extreme. Aside from the risks of litigation and potential liabilities, how your company deals with romantic relationships can impact your ability to attract labor quality and talent and can adversely affect employee morale which, in turn, can significantly impact productivity, sales, and profits. In short, workplace romances are a minefield of problems for the employer. That being said, there some practical steps that can be taken. An experienced San Diego corporate attorney can help. Here are a few tips.

Good Company Policies and Procedures Regarding Sexual Harassment

First, your business needs good company policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment. This means defining bad and inappropriate behavior. Your company’s policies may clearly prohibit harassment, define harassment and provide examples, and must provide mechanisms for reporting and disciplining wrongful behavior. The discipline process may clearly define who is to be contacted regarding a complaint (including an alternative if the perpetrator is in the chain of reporting), provide for speedy investigation, give the accused an opportunity to respond while protecting the privacy and safety of the victim, and may involve punishment that is proportional to the wrongful behavior.

Good Company Policies and Procedures Regarding Retaliation

In a similar manner, your business needs good company policies and procedures that prevent retaliation. This relates to retaliation for wrongful conduct, for reporting wrongful conduct, and for rejecting romantic overtures or ending romantic involvement. The policies may clearly prohibit retaliation, define retaliation and provide examples, and must provide mechanisms for reporting and disciplining wrongful behavior.

Training is Necessary

California law no longer considers policies and procedures sufficient. Employees must receive training that explains and educates with respect to anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. We wrote about recent changes in the law here and  here.

Aside from compliance with legal requirements, well-drafted and considered policies and procedures along with the training help reduce liability risks. If there is litigation or some administrative proceeding is brought, the policies, procedures, and training help demonstrate that you, the employer, have taken harassment seriously and are serious about preventing it.

Do Not Overlook Practical Common-Sense Solutions

In addition to these general steps, employers are advised to not overlook practical common-sense steps to prevent negative impacts of workplace romance, particularly if the suggestions come from the parties involved. For example, assume that the workplace romance is between a bartender and a wait-staff server. If the relationship falls apart, the parties might feel uncomfortable — bitter and angry maybe — working the same shift. If the parties request different shifts, go ahead and agree. Make sure that there are notes in the file documenting the requested changes to work shifts, but do not be afraid to take common-sense actions. Agreement is needed for the solution to considered “common-sense.” If the parties dispute which shifts are to be changed, then the supervisor should assign the shifts in the normal and customary manner.

Contact San Diego Corporate Law Today

For more information, contact attorney Michael Leonard, Esq., of San Diego Corporate Law. Mr. Leonard has extensive experience in drafting employee policies, employee handbooks, employment contracts, and the other contracts and agreements necessary for running your business. Mr. Leonard can be reached at (858) 483-9200 or via email. Like us on Facebook.

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