Risk Management

Sexual Harrasment

The Love Bug Bites
Alix StuartJuly 1, 2001

Legal departments would have a much easier time if the Love Bug virus were confined to computers. But with longer hours and fewer formalities at the office, love has been blooming among employees. According to a survey by Vault.com, a career Web site, nearly 50 percent of respondents have been romantically involved with a co-worker at some point during their career. More worrisome from a legal perspective, 27.6 percent of managers said they had dated at least one subordinate, and another 23 percent said they would be willing to.

“Workplace romances are dangerous for all involved–including the employer,” says Ronald E. Richman, a partner at New York­based Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP. Relationships that last can disrupt productivity and morale, he says, while those that go sour leave a company vulnerable to sexual harassment charges.

Legal experts point out that sexual harassment settlement payments are not uncommon. In fact, recent Supreme Court decisions that favor plaintiffs have caused many lower courts to scrutinize employers’ demonstrated commitment to sexual harassment policies. One result of the legal crackdown: In tandem with well-defined policies, training programs, and complaint mechanisms, some companies are actually defining policies on office romances. Vault reports that 17.6 percent of employers claim to have such policies in place. While very few companies ban it altogether, some, like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., may prohibit dating between a manager and a subordinate. And well over 100 companies are using so-called love contracts, claims Jeff Tanenbaum, an attorney at Littler Mendelson, in San Francisco.

A contract sets ground rules about work behavior in light of an intraoffice relationship in order to help companies avoid suits. “It’s generally used when a relationship is already in trouble and the fighting disrupts the office,” says Tanenbaum. Alternatively, it might be used from the outset of a manager-subordinate relationship to prevent either party from feeling pressured to stay in the relationship.

So far, other attorneys say such contracts have not proven their worth in court, and may present thornier legal problems. “The more you try to control risk,” says Richman, “the more you intrude on peoples’ lives, which makes the workplace unappealing, and, in some cases, can be illegal.” — Alix Nyberg