Ask The Lawyer By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq. Office Romance?

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QUESTION: I’ve been dating a co-worker for over two years now. We weren’t making a secret of it, but we weren’t broadcasting our relationship, either. Our supervisor learned we were a couple last week and now insists that one us of should either leave the company, or transfer to a different department. Why is this any of his business? We aren’t hurting anyone.

ANSWER:     While a two-year relationship sounds pretty safe, it’s a sad fact that office romances often end in litigation. Relationships between supervisors and/or co-workers can lead to charges of favoritism, nepotism, sexism, harassment and retaliation, among others.

You don’t indicate whether you and your co-worker are at the same level in the company hierarchy, or whether one of you has supervisory or managerial authority over the other. The risk of litigation, and of company liability, is particularly high when supervisory personnel cozy up with workers they supervise. When an imbalance of power exists, the possibility of quid pro quo or other forms of sexual harassment increases. And, although a relationship may be completely consensual, the employee in the lower position might be regarded with suspicion by other workers. Did he get a raise because he earned it, or because the boss is his sweetie?

Even when there is no disparity in rank, dating between co-workers can upset the office environment. For example, in early December, co-anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach of ABC’s GMA3 were pulled from the air after a workplace romance between the two was revealed. Although the relationship apparently did not violate company policy, the president of ABC News called it “an internal and external disruption.”

An office relationship that doesn’t cause any ripples, let alone coverage in the New York Post or National Enquirer, can still be disruptive. A break-up, especially a bad one, can make things difficult at work, not only for the former lovers, but also for all their co-workers.

Despite the possibility of fall-out from an office romance, three quarters of workers have no problem when their co-workers cozy up, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). This is not really surprising; another survey found that half of all U.S. workers have dated a co-worker at least once. And, workplace romances do not always end badly: Surveys have reported that from 16 percent to 31 percent of office relationships lead to marriage. Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama reportedly met when the two worked together at the same law firm.

Employers are unlikely to see the bright side of office dating. Online marketing company Reboot found that 84 percent of employers disapproved of employees dating, and four percent of workers lost their jobs as a result of their relationships.

To protect a company against possible liability from office relationships, some companies prohibit such relationships, especially between supervisors and those they oversee, while others require workers to sign a Consensual Relationship Agreement — also known as a “Love Contract”— disclosing the relationship, establishing that it is consensual, and waiving any right to sue the company for claims that might arise as a result of the relationship.

One problem with love contracts, however, is that many people who are involved in workplace relationships don’t want to publicize them. CareerBuilder reported in 2018 that 27 percent of men and 21 percent of women admitted that one party to their office relationship was married at the time. Even when two singles become romantically involved at work, they may not want to broadcast the fact. The SHRM survey found that 77 percent of workers who have been involved in a workplace romance failed to disclose the relationship to their employer.

Before you and/or your significant other look for a new job or request a transfer, you should review your company’s policy, and discuss your situation with the company’s human resources department (if there is one) and/or with an attorney.

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By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
900 Wilshire Drive, Suite 104
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 970-0310
(248) 970-0311 facsimile
[email protected]