Intra-Office Romance & Retaliation

Many employers’ fears of drawing a sexual harassment claim prompts a ban on intra-office dating.  Consensual, intimate and sexual relationships between co-workers is not prohibited by Title VII (and other related local laws).  However, the existence of such relationships certainly increases the risks of such claims arising and creating circumstances that may be ripe for retaliation claims.  

Why?

The problem with consensual relationships is the ability to confirm that, at each step of the relationship and at every moment, both individuals are voluntarily engaged in it.  Where one partner has more authority or influence in the workplace than the other, a risk exists that the less empowered employee may “stay in the relationship” or “go along with things” or “delay or not say no/break up” for reasons that then smack of quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Additionally, when a consensual, romantic relationship in the workplace ends, a real risk of a retaliation claim and a quid pro quo sexual harassment claim goes up exorbitantly.  Such dramas make headlines.  Like story lines from a soap opera, spurned lovers may use the workplace as a playing field of revenge, even enlisting co-workers to shun or otherwise afflict the work environment for the ex-partner.  Tales of less desirable assignments after the break-up (and because of the break-up) are legendary and costly to everyone involved.

What can workplaces do to minimize these sorts of issues from arising without prohibiting intra-office romances?  

  • Have a strong and well-implemented policy that prohibits sexual harassment and retaliation.
  • Train managers and employees regarding expectations and how to report problems.
  • Have strong Human Resources professionals who not only know the law, but also have strong investigation skills.
  • Have competent legal counsel available for “hot line” calls and issues.
  • Know local workplace investigation firms to assist with investigations into complaints and concerns about harassment and retaliation. 

  

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