Relationship Agreements a Cog in the Harassment Prevention Machine

Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but office romance and relationships are still fresh in the mind of many Human Resources managers, as office romances are on the rise. Indeed, a recent study performed by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) revealed that over 40 percent of employees have had a romance or tryst in the office at some point in time. Office romances in the modern era are unavoidable, as more employees spend more time at the office than they do in the outside world. Nevertheless, these relationships can prove harmful to the work environment, and therefore a careful policy must be crafted to ensure a peaceful environment for all at the office.

Relationship Agreements

Relationship agreements (colloquially known as “love contracts”) between company employees who have voluntarily entered into a romantic relationship are becoming more and more common. Although there are privacy concerns at work, such agreements are largely held lawful due to the significant risks of harassment and discrimination that the employer faces.

What are the Elements of a Relationship Agreement?

The key elements of a written office relationship agreement are as follows:

  • These agreements state that the two employees have voluntarily entered into a romantic relationship;
  • Both members of the relationship understand the company policies regarding sexual harassment;
  • These agreements serve as written confirmation that the relationship is consensual and free of influence on behalf of either of the members (or a third party);
  • These agreements also outline prohibited behavior such as sexual contact on the clock, favoritism, and inappropriate communication between the members of the relationship.
  • Finally, these agreements include information for the parties about HR contacts in the event of a problem.
Why Ask Employees to Enter into a Relationship Agreement?

Although many office romances begin splendidly, they tend to sour quickly and have problems that do not exist in the outside dating world, mostly due to the fact that the parties are required to interact with one another on a daily basis after the relationship ends. To that end, relationship agreements serve as evidence that the parties acknowledged their understanding of the company harassment policy in the event one of the ex-lovers files a harassment lawsuit against the company.

Relationship Agreements are Not Perfect

Make no mistake, although these types of arrangements can reduce the risk of harassment complaints and subsequent lawsuits they are not perfect, and will not absolve the company of liability if one of the parties engages in unlawful behavior. Nevertheless, they serve as notice to each member of the relationship that the company has policies in place and place them on notice as to what steps need to be taken in the event there is a problem.

An Important Note on Supervisor and Subordinate Relationships

Generally, supervisor and subordinate relationships should be prohibited by company policy to avoid the appearance or claims of undue influence, favoritism, coercion or harassment. If a supervisor and subordinate become involved in a relationship, supervisory responsibility may need to be altered so that the supervisory employee no longer exerts direct control over the management of the subordinate. Doing so can save the company significant heartache (no pun intended) if and when things go sour.

As always, it also important that company policies regarding relationships, as well as any disciplinary action resulting from said relationship, be applied consistently regardless of the employee's tenure, position within the organization, or past performance. Although this should go without saying, many sex and other forms of discrimination problems arise when an employee claims that a colleague also was in a relationship in the office and was treated differently.

Crafting and suggesting employee signatures on a relationship agreement can be an effective method of limiting liability in the event of problems with a workplace relationship. However, this area of law is complicated and your managers should receive proper training prior to asking employees to sign any form of agreement or contract.  Contact Syntrio for more information and remember to follow us on Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn for daily updates on employment law and compliance issues that may impact your business!

 

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