Friday, February 13, 2009

Romance At Work


'Love contracts' help employers avoid the pitfalls of romances at work


When love blooms at work, “love contracts” may follow.

Dating often begins with hearts and flowers and Valentine’s Day cards, but it’s been known to end with harassment, retaliation claims and jury trials.

To protect themselves against lawsuits, some employers have begun asking co-workers to sign written confirmations that they have entered into voluntary relationships.

These formal documents typically affirm that “neither party wants their relationship with each other to affect their jobs or the company in any way.” Employees agree to abide by company-conduct policies while dating and after the relationship ends.

“It makes sense, even if your first reaction is, ‘Aw, come on, give me a break,’ ” said Brian Finucane, a lawyer in the Kansas City office of Fisher & Phillips, which has had a few workers in client companies sign such documents.

Finucane and other lawyers said they expect love contracts to proliferate.

Lost-love litigation isn’t common, but when it hits, it can result in six-figure — and sometimes larger — jury awards for actual and punitive damages.

“I have a visceral distaste for the name, but, yes, I’ve had a handful of love contracts signed in the metro area,” said Shelly Freeman, a lawyer with HROI, an employment law practice.

Human resource experts say it makes good business sense to get written acknowledgement that a workplace relationship is consensual. They point to such well-publicized cases as the 2005 ouster of the CEO of Boeing Co., whose board fired him after directors learned of his affair with a woman executive.

Staples Inc., Tyco International and Bendix Corp. also have been rocked by high-profile executive-employee liaisons.

Yet in the lower echelons of the workplace, co-worker dating flourishes.

According to CareerBuilder. com, 40 percent of 8,038 workers surveyed in November said they had dated a co-worker at some point in their work lives.

About three-fourths of the respondents said they dated openly and didn’t feel a need to keep it secret. It is a rare company these days that forbids co-worker relationships, but many do prohibit one romantically connected partner from supervising the other.

Longer hours on the job and fewer single-sex workplaces have increased the likelihood of office romances. That in itself isn’t a bad thing. After all, the CareerBuilder survey found that nearly one-third of the office romances ended up at the altar.

What makes employment law attorneys and human resource officers especially nervous is when they learn an employee is dating his or her boss, as did about four in 10 of the intraoffice daters who were polled.

That is the kind of relationship that, if it fails, has led to charges alleging sex for favors and other violations of workplace policies and laws.

And that is where, if the romance is revealed, a lawyer is most likely to plop a love contract on the conference room table.

The documents usually are signed by both workers, who acknowledge that they understand all the workplace policies against harassment and will keep the relationship at arm’s length — literally and figuratively — in the office.

“As a lawyer, this piece of paper would be a gold mine of evidence for an employer,” Finucane said. “It’s almost a get-out-of-jail-free defense, from a lawyer’s perspective.”

By DIANE STAFFORD
The Kansas City Star

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