The Dangers Of Office Romance

By: Randy Dotinga

An ad rep with legs for days. A circulation manager who has a killer smile. An editor with a sense of humor and kind eyes. Newspapers may offer plenty of temptations for the single (if not the married), but dating at the workplace isn’t for the faint of heart.

While the potential benefits are pretty nice, office romance can easily turn sour. Tension and hurt feelings are the least of the potential problems. Imagine getting hit with disciplinary action, a sexual harassment claim, or a lawsuit. Or a trifecta!

Employment attorneys like Lisa Klerman of Los Angeles tell workers to just keep their minds and their hands off their colleagues. “Just don’t do it, with a big exclamation point,” advises Klerman, who works for Morrison and Foerster.

Fat chance. Even Klerman acknowledges that no number of warnings will ever keep co-workers from being attracted to each other, especially at newspapers where people spend long hours together.

If you do take the plunge, experts advise that you respect the rules listed in the employee handbook that’s buried in your desk somewhere.

If you’re a boss who’s attracted to a subordinate, it’s possible the handbook will tell you that a relationship is simply out of the question. If that’s so, you’re simply out of luck. “The reason it’s taboo is because there are so many things bad that can happen,” said David Swider, an employment law attorney at Bose, McKinney & Evans in Indianapolis.

Snider advises his company clients to simply ban supervisors from having relationships with the people they oversee. While such rules don’t appear to be common in newspapers, Snider said more companies are adopting them.

Such restrictions on the private lives of employees are perfectly legal, Snider said. “From the managerial standpoint, the employer has some control. In the exercise of good discretion, a management employee should probably not engage in this kind of behavior if it can be avoided.”

Experts said a supervisor-employee relationship could spawn a sexual harassment claim charging that there was a “quid pro quo” — the employee was forced to agree to the relationship in order avoid retaliation or receive special benefits.

If you’re a boss, don’t assume that you’re safe because the employee you’re dating is acting of his or her free will, said Steven Abraham, a professor of business management at the State University of New York at Oswego. The employee may still be able to link management decisions to the romance — a demotion, perhaps, or a missed promotion. “Even if there once was a consensual relationship, the courts almost don’t care,” he said.

People not involved in the relationships — third parties — can file claims too and allege that the employee in a relationship got special treatment. “The other problem is violence,” Snider said. “Frequently these relationships involve married people. The number one concern is jealous lovers or husbands coming to work and blowing people away.”

There is a small bit of good news in all this for those who commit (or allegedly commit) misconduct. If an employee files a sexual harassment claim regarding the actions of a boss, the supervisor isn’t likely to face any personal liability unless the case is especially egregious. “The employer is the one who pays the tab” in most cases, Snider said. Federal law doesn’t allow damages over $300,000 in sexual harassment cases, but individual states can set much higher limits, giving conniptions to attorneys like Snider.

So maybe bosses shouldn’t date subordinates. But it’s totally OK for co-workers to date each other, right? Well … maybe.

Companies typically don’t set rules about co-worker dating, largely because they face little liability if things go poorly. While courts consider supervisors to be extensions of the employer, employees are generally free agents. As long as the company has a proper sexual harassment policy in place and makes sure employees read it, workers who claim harassment by their non-supervisor colleagues are responsible for going through proper channels to complain. If they don’t, they have little legal recourse.

Just like misbehaving supervisors, co-workers who are responsible for harassing behavior may get off scot-free in the courts except in the worst cases, experts said. But the courts won’t protect harassers from a pink slip or the nasty gossip that may follow them for years.

And what if your relationship is perfect and leads to a happy marriage? Even a pair of wedding rings won’t necessarily take you off the hook. Many newspapers forbid relatives from working for each other, and some won’t even hire couples in the first place.

Considering all of this, it may be best to thwart Cupid’s efforts, lest he put an arrow through your career.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Language that’s totally inappropriate in an elementary school office may sound positively genteel in a chaotic newsroom. What counts as sexual harassment at newspapers? And what should victims do to preserve their rights?

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