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With Valentine’s Day coming this weekend (Sunday, lest neglect is the gift you are otherwise planning to bestow) it’s a fair to turn to the topic of relationships in the workplace.  While newer terms such as “work spouse,” “work husband,” or “work wife” have joined the jargon lexicon to describe platonic relationships between co-workers, what is not new is the advent of relationships in the workplace.  While it sometimes seems that about 125% of all workplaces with more than 20 employees have experienced some form of a co-worker relationship beyond platonic, actual studies that do not defy mathematics find that around 50% of professional employees have engaged had such a relationship with a co-worker during their careers.  These relationships create HR nightmares.

What is HR to do with workplace relationships?

First, not all relationships are equal.  We start from understanding unlawful harassment.  Harassment can take many forms, but of most concern to companies is supervisor-subordinate harassment.  Companies are liable for harassment by a supervisor toward a subordinate and should take all steps to stomp out harassment of this sort.  Relationships, even if mutually agreeable between a supervisor and a subordinate are tainted because of the power differential in the workplace.  Companies create this power differential dynamic and have control and responsibility over what occurs in the workplace.  As a result, if the relationship goes bad (which is normal) the company could be liable for any resulting harassment toward the subordinate.  Companies, correctly, routinely have policies that prohibit supervisors from having relationships with subordinates and affirmatively take actions to prevent such relationships.

Love often defies policies, however; so what is HR to do if a supervisor refuses to comply and the company does not want to separate the two from the supervisor-subordinate working relationship?  Enter love contracts.  Love contracts are agreements between the parties clarifying the existence of the relationship, stating that the relationship will not result in any adverse employment action against the subordinate, and if/when it goes badly the subordinate is to immediately report any act of harassment or adverse employment action taken by the supervisor.  These sorts of agreements do not insulate employers from potential liability for harassment and discrimination claims with perfection, but they can offer some minor protections, solace and make it clear that everyone involved is aware of the protections against harassment the company has for employees.  Consider it a tool to try and protect the company, but one that is not absolute.  Better is separating the two from a directly reporting relationship, but when that is not an option a well-drafted love contract is better than nothing.

Thompson Coe and myHRgenius Tip of the Week is not intended as a solicitation, does not constitute legal advice, and does not establish an attorney-client relationship.


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Kevin M. Mosher

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