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    When Your Employees Date, Make Sure You Don't Get a Courtroom Date

    In the modern workplace, men and women work together for eight or ten hours a day; sometimes even longer. When people spend that much time together, it's not surprising that occasional romances will bloom. Many people have met their spouses at work. Unfortunately, workplace romances don't always have happy endings. When a couple in an office breaks up, the atmosphere can become, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, hostile. Productivity can suffer as the ex-partners feud with each other. More serious, in some cases the firm may have a significant financial exposure when love goes wrong.

    Relationships between two people of equal position in the company may not be cause for concern, but romances involving supervisors and their subordinates can expose the company to legal liability. Workers outside the relationship may detect favoritism toward the subordinate when he or she receives pay raises, promotions, or other desired rewards. Conversely, if the couple breaks up, the subordinate may be sensitive to any actions that smack of retaliation. In the worst cases, the subordinate may decide he or she is a victim of sexual harassment and take legal action against the company. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received almost 14,000 complaints of sexual harassment in 2008. Almost 30 percent of these settled in the injured employee's favor, costing the employers $47 million, not including damage awards won through litigation.

    Employers who wish to avoid close relationships with government investigators may consider several options, including:

    * Not having an office romance policy. Firms who choose this option may emphasize anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies instead.

    * At the other extreme, some companies have outright bans on employee romances. While this may have some appeal, it can be difficult to implement because the forbidden behavior may be hard to define. Also, courts may not uphold such a ban.

    * Some companies require employees who date each other to notify a company representative, such as the human resources manager, when the relationship begins and if it ends. This may protect the company from ensuing sexual harassment claims.

    * Many companies have policies against spouses working for the same company or against employees supervising significant others, spouses, or other relatives. This can make it less likely that other employees will perceive favoritism, but the company must apply the policy equal to members of both sexes to avoid discrimination claims.

    * Some companies actually require employees in a relationship to sign contracts. These agreements state that the employees have entered into a voluntary relationship, affirm that they understand the company harassment policy, describe how to report complaints, and describe acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.


    In addition to adopting one of these options, employers can take some steps to reduce their chances of having to fend off sexual harassment claims. First, they should communicate to supervisors that relationships with subordinates should be avoided. They should create an environment where supervisors and other employees feel safe to report improper behavior. They should have policies against harassment and implement procedures for making complaints. They should take steps to end direct reporting relationships between romantic partners by transferring one of them, if possible.

    Human nature being what it is, there will probably always be workplace romances. Thoughtful consideration and implementation of policy alternatives will help protect a company from potential resulting lawsuits. However, all the best precautions may still fail to prevent litigation, so all employers should carry employment practices liability insurance. An experienced insurance agent can provide advise on the available coverage options and companies. With preventive measures in place and risk financing in the form of a good insurance policy, employers can focus on their top priorities: Growing their businesses.

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