Is it love or sexual harassment?
In a CareerBuilder poll released in 2013, 39 percent of workers said they have dated a co-worker at least once over the course of their career. Thirty percent of those who have dated a co-worker said their office romance led them to the altar. It’s the ones that don’t that more likely cause problems for employers.
A soured relationship can lead to claims of sexual harassment, particularly when it involves co-workers on different rungs of the corporate ladder. Sexual harassment in the office, pervasive a generation or two ago, has become less acceptable due to changing social norms and more employer awareness and training. However, that does not mean it is not a problem. A generation ago, the victim of sexual harassment probably would have quit her job. Now, she (or he) can sue.
In 2011, the last year for which complete figures are available, the U.S. Equal Economic Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that it received 11,364 sexual harassment complaints. Of these, 10.9 percent came to a settlement, 9.1 percent were withdrawn “with benefits,” and 26.1 percent were resolved “with merit.” Complainants won $52.3 million in monetary benefits, which does not include monetary benefits obtained through litigation.
In addition to the cost of settlements and litigation, employers facing a sexual harassment claim can suffer a hit to their reputation and staff morale. As the EEOC says, “Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.”
What Exactly Is Sexual Harassment?
The EEOC defines two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. In quid pro quo harassment, someone in power exchanges something (such as a raise or promotion) for sexual favors. This type of harassment is usually initiated by those in supervisory positions.
A “hostile work environment” can occur whenever unwelcome sexual conduct creates an environment that employees view as hostile or intimidating. Such conduct can include making unwelcome sexual advances or sexually offensive remarks, displaying sexually explicit pictures, or making crude jokes or obscene gestures.
Affairs between co-workers can sometimes lead to problems with other workers. Some courts have recognized “sexual favoritism” as sexual harassment because it creates a “hostile work environment” for the other workers.
What Action Steps Can Employers Take?
Until the 1970s and early 1980s, many companies banned employee dating outright. As of 2005, only 18 percent of human resource managers surveyed by the Society of Human Resource Management said their employer had written policies on workplace romances. Of those that did have written policies, 20 percent permitted romances among co-workers, 48 percent “permitted but discouraged” them, 31 percent forbade them, and 2 percent did not know.
Some companies take a proactive approach to dealing with interoffice romances. When an interoffice romance comes to light, some have the parties involved sign a “love contract,” which stipulates that the relationship was entered into willingly and that, if it ends badly, neither party will hold the employer liable for sexual harassment.
If the relationship involves a subordinate and supervisor, some companies provide the parties a notice stating sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Other companies prohibit these relationships outright and require the transfer of one of the employees to another department when a relationship occurs or becomes public.
However, employers should be careful not to violate employees’ privacy. Even if you suspect an interoffice romance, do not overstep. You probably will not want to make inquiries unless the relationship is between a supervisor and subordinate, has triggered complaints from one of the parties or other employees, or has affected work performance.
If you’re interested in developing a written workplace romance policy, see the website of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)’s template at www.shrm.org/TemplatesTools/Samples/Policies/Pages/CMS_006713.aspx. If you have concerns over a particular situation, though, you might want to consult an attorney experienced in employment matters. Your commercial general liability policy does not cover sexual harassment and other employment-related lawsuits.