Spring is in the air!  And, for many, love is in the air!  But what if romance finds its way into your workplace?  If coworkers are dating or otherwise romantically involved, their conduct may negatively affect your workplace.  And, you may face legal claims related to a romantic relationship that affects your workplace.

Romantic relationships can impact your workplace in various ways.  The romantically-involved coworkers may be less productive because they spend more time together socializing at work.  If disputes develop between the coworkers, their conduct in the workplace may reflect such discord.  Also, such a romantic relationship may trigger complaints from other employees. Employees may complain that the coworkers show favoritism toward the other as a result of the romantic relationship.  Similarly, coworkers may more closely monitor the conduct of the coworkers because of such relationship.  In any of these scenarios, employers may spend additional time addressing unprofessional conduct, complaints of favoritism, etc.  Also, employers may face legal claims if the romantic relationship ends and one of the coworkers complains that he or she has been, or is being, sexually harassed by their former romantic partner.  The potential legal implications are even more significant if one of the coworkers is in a supervisory or leadership position.

Ideally, employers will address this issue on a proactive basis.  Employers can implement a policy that discourages, or even prohibits, dating or romantic relationships at work.  The policy can also require that employees disclose a romantic relationship to the employer if such a relationship develops.  Implementing a written policy provides the employer with a basis for addressing romantic relationships and imposing disciplinary action as necessary.  The policy also provides a structure by which employees can bring romantic relationships to the employer’s attention.

Even without a written policy, employers must deal with workplace problems triggered by a romantic relationship.  If an employer receives a complaint regarding an actual (or alleged) romantic relationship in the workplace, the employer must promptly conduct an investigation.  The nature of the complaint, and the employee making the complaint, should direct the focus of the investigation.  The crux of the investigation will likely involve interviewing employees.  The employer should carefully determine the person(s) who will conduct the investigation.  Is the employer’s HR leader the best person to conduct the investigation?  Should outside legal counsel conduct the investigation?  Is the complaining person engaged in the romantic relationship?  Is the complaining person subordinate to the people involved in the relationship?

As part of any interviews, the employer should reassure each employee that the employer will not tolerate any retaliation against the employee.  Employees should also be advised that the investigation will be kept confidential to the extent possible.    In addition to interviews, the employer should determine whether any other evidence, such as emails, text messages and/or social media posts exist to corroborate the complaining employee’s complaints.  Finally, employees should be encouraged to bring any subsequent facts or information to the investigator’s attention.

Once the investigation is completed, the employer must determine what actions should be taken, if any.  One, or both, of the parties in the romantic relationship may need to be disciplined and/or terminated.  Similarly, the employer may need to discipline or terminate other employees.  The employer may choose to circulate a new policy regarding romantic relationships at work (or circulate a reminder regarding the current policy.)  Ultimately, the employer should carefully document the investigation and the basis for taking any subsequent actions.  Finally, the employer should communicate with the complaining employee to provide a summary of the investigation and the employer’s conclusions.

When love is in the air at work, employers must proceed carefully to address employee complaints, take prompt remedial action (if necessary), and create or restore a positive working environment for all employees. If your company does not currently have policies in place regarding workplace romantic relationships, please contact a member of Dvorak Law Group’s Labor and Employment Practice Group for assistance.

Julie Schultz Self