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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Joseph G. Jarret
February 6, 2015
It doesn’t take a degree or vast experience in HR to recognize that workplace romances exist. It is probably equally unsurprising to learn that, based upon the amount of time people spend at work, the office or workplace is the place where people often meet their significant others. Equally common is the fact that some workplace encounters that begin with romance, often end up becoming unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other conduct of a sexual nature that often precipitate into claims constituting sexual harassment. It is because of this latter scenario that many employers are increasingly asking employees who become romantically involved on the job to enter into consensual romance in the workplace agreements, colloquially known as “love contracts.”
Before we explore the mechanics of a love contract, a definition of workplace romance is in order. According to Robert J. Paul & James B. Townsend in their writing 1998 Review of Business article titled “Managing the Workplace Romance: Protecting Employee and Employer Rights,” a workplace romance can best be described as a relationship between people working together which is characterized by sexual attraction whether or not their behavior is such that there fellow employees, supervisors or managers are aware of the relationship.
According to Stewart D. Aaron & Jacob Thomas in a 1998 New York Law Journal article titled “Consensual Sexual Relationships Between Supervisors and Subordinates,” such romances pose a multitude of problems for employers, including but not limited to: decreased productivity, an increase of sexual harassment claims, as well as complaints from co-workers, and employer retaliation.
A survey conducted by Careerbuilder.com reported 39 percent of workers said they have dated a co-worker at least once over the course of their career; 17 percent reported dating co-workers at least twice. Thirty percent of those who have dated a co-worker said their office romance led them to the altar. Most workers who responded to the survey who have had office romances said they were open about their dating situation. Thirty-five percent reported they had to keep the relationship under wraps. Enter the love contract.
The Love Contract
According to attorney Joseph L. Beachboard with the firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. a love contract should begin with a recitation of the organization’s sexual harassment/anti-discrimination policy. Such a policy should state unequivocally that unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment. Further that the contract describe, in detail, the nature of the consensual relationship. For instance, language to the effect of the following is suggested:
–Consensual Relationship. We, the undersigned employees, have entered into a personal relationship with each other. We agree as follows:
–Our relationship is entirely voluntary and consensual.
–Our relationship will not have a negative impact on our work.
–We will not engage in any public displays of affection or other behavior that might create a hostile work environment for others or that might make others uncomfortable.
It is also important the employees agree in writing that they will act professionally toward each other at all times, even after the relationship has ended. Further that they will not participate in any entity decision-making processes that could affect the other party’s pay, promotional opportunities, performance reviews, hours, shifts or career, while they are in a relationship and after the relationship ends.
The savvy HR manager will also anticipate that many workplace romances come to an end long before the employees’ service to the entity end. As such, the following language should be included in the contract:
We each agree that, if the relationship ends, we will respect the other person’s decision to end the relationship and will not retaliate against the other person, engage in any unprofessional or inappropriate efforts to resume the relationship, or engage in any other conduct toward the other person that could violate the [entity’s anti-harassment policy].
As you might imagine, not all HR professionals are enamored of the idea of love contracts. Lorene Schaefer, an attorney with Workplace Investigations Group, recently opined:
“Employers would be better served in focusing their efforts on creating a culture of compliance and respect in the workplace versus having employees engaged in an open office romance sign Consensual Relationship Agreements. Unfortunately, human behavior dictates that there will always be employees engaged in secret office relationships. Those employees are unlikely to self-report their secrets and change their behavior because the employer has a practice of having employees sign Consensual Relationship Agreements. In fact, having such a practice might have the opposite result with those employees going further underground in their secret relationship – until, of course, it sours and one or both of the employees files a claim of harassment or hostile work environment.”
As love contracts continue to grow in popularity, it is not a stretch to presume that some public sector HR professionals may take a fresh look at their utility. Regardless of whether love contracts are appropriate in your organization, one thing is for certain: workplace romance is here to stay!
Author: Joe Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the 2013-2014 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.