With Valentine’s Day around the corner, this is a good time to put some spotlight on office romances and their possible legal repercussions.
Falling in love with your coworker? Supervisor? Manager? Wonder no more. Humans fall in love with people who live or work near them, and with those who are available and accessible to them. Studies in psychology confirmed that proximity and availability are the most influential factors that make humans fall in love.
Think about it: if you sit side by side a co-worker for eight hours every day, five days a week, and with only a flimsy particleboard partition between you, you just might start to feel romantic stirrings. This is normal and completely understandable. But should you give in to these romantic feelings? If you do give in to the romantic feelings for your co-worker, how would this affect your workplace rights and the terms and conditions of your work?
What if your office has a no-fraternization policy? What can you do? And how will falling in love and having a romantic relationship at work affect your employment rights?
Most employers discourage or ban romantic relationships in the office – Why?
Employers have a compelling interest in regulating or prohibiting romantic relationships in the workplace. Employers adopt no-fraternization policies because they need to keep to a minimum the conflicts of interest that may occur when people fall in love with each other at work; instead of working for the company’s interests, the co-workers will protect their own interests in pursuit of a romantic relationship. They need to keep to a minimum the friction that results when office romances do not work out. They need to protect their investment in personnel training in case employees resign because of the distress caused by a failed romantic relationship at work. Employers lose their investment in their personnel if they resign, refuse to work with a former romantic partner, or are terminated for misconduct, after an office romance fails. Employers can be made liable to pay damages if sexual harassment or sexual discrimination results from failed office romances. They can be made liable to pay damages for failing to provide a reasonably safe work environment if sexual assault or rape occurs within the workplace.
Banning romantic relationships at work is based on widely accepted community norms. The law prohibits sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. Failed romantic relationship often degenerate into complaints for harassment. There are two types of sexual harassment: those perpetrated by persons in positions of authority (supervisor or manager) who use their authority to seek sexual favors in exchange for more favorable job conditions or benefits. The other type of sexual harassment is when coworkers engage in hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment that is severe or pervasive. Romantic relationships and bonds between co-workers, whether they succeed or fail, can still be a source of potential litigation, animosity or distress that impact productivity.
|Failed office romances often result in charges of sexual discrimination.
|Successful romantic relationships can lead to charges of sexual discrimination in matters of promotion or educational opportunities.|
|Failed office romances often result in charges of sexual harassment.
|Successful romantic relationships often lead to charges of nepotism or favoritism in job assignments.|
|Failed office romances often result in creating a hostile environment in the workplace.
|Successful romantic relationships often lead to charges of disruption in workflow and conflicts of interest.|
Employers adopt bans on romantic relationships at work to decrease liability for damages. When company officers such as managers and supervisors romantically pursue their subordinates, and the romantic feelings or romantic relationships interfere with work performance, this leads to losses in productivity. When managers and supervisors romantically pursue their subordinates, and the romantic feelings or romantic relationships taint decisions regarding assignment of work, decisions on promotions, etc. these may ripen into charges of sexual discrimination or sexual harassment.
How can romances be viewed as sexual discrimination or sexual harassment?
- The Florida Civil Rights Act defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It becomes harassment when submission to such acts becomes a term or condition for hiring or continued employment; or when the submission or rejection of such conduct becomes the basis for employment conditions; or when the conduct interferes with work performance or when it creates a hostile or offensive work environment.
- Section 110.1221 of the Florida Statutes declares that it is the policy of the state that sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination and it is prohibited.
- Section 443.036 (30) of the Florida Statutes allows an employer to penalize or discipline its employees for committing misconduct related to their work even if it did not occur within the workplace or within work hours.
How do employers justify terminating an employee for breaching a no-fraternization policy?
Florida is an “at-will” jurisdiction and this means that an employer can terminate the employment of an employee for any reason without prior notice. An employer can terminate the employment of any employee who ignores, disregards or breaches a ban on fraternization because the employee who violated a no-fraternization ban consciously disregarded the rules set by the employer, and thus, disregarded the interests of the employer.
The no-fraternization policy is a reasonable standard of behavior expected of employees especially when employees were made aware of the no-fraternization policy and they signed conformity with the ban. Thus, if they disregard, ignore or breach the policy, they are not complying with a reasonable behavior expected of them by their employer.
When an employee who holds a position of authority violates the ban against fraternization in the workplace, it shows a degree of carelessness or negligence that shows wrongful intent or culpability. A supervisor or manager is hired to work for the interests of the employer and must always be loyal to the employer’s interests. If there is a ban on fraternization, and the supervisor or manager breaches the ban, he or she is putting the employer at risk.
Should you enter a romantic relationship with someone you work with? Being an adult often means having strong feelings but having enough good sense not to act on those strong feelings. If you are falling in love with your co-worker, you might do well to breathe deeply and:
- Check if you have an anti-fraternization policy at your workplace.
Most employers include an anti-fraternization policy at the workplace. These policies usually fall into one of three categories:
- They ban all romantic relationships among co-workers.
- They ban romantic relationships only between supervisors and their subordinates.
- They require a love contract signed by the romantic partners to attest that the relationship is consensual.
- Check if the anti-fraternization policy at your workplace is strictly enforced.
Some employers have an anti-fraternization policy in the employees’ handbook but the prohibition is honored in the breach, that is, the employer turns a blind eye to romantic relationships between people who work with each other as long as the employees are discreet.
Can I sue my employer if I am terminated for having had a romantic relationship at work?
You must prove a protected privacy interest. Entering a romantic or sexual relationship with a coworker is a form of intimate association. The US Constitution protects the right of intimate association and this includes the right of two consenting adults to engage in sexual or romantic activity in private. This means that you cannot flaunt your sexual relationships in the office and even on social media. The romantic partners must be discreet because the right to intimate association must be exercised in private.
You must prove that your termination was an adverse action against your intimate association even when the intimate relationship does not affect your work performance. This means that you must show that your performance has not suffered because of your relationship.
You must prove that you had a reasonable expectation of privacy. This is difficult to prove because your expectation that your employer will respect your privacy must be based on evidence that there are customs, practices or physical settings in your workplace that create a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example: if your boss tells you that he prohibits you from using your office email to send romantic emails or romantic Facebook posts, then there is a reasonable expectation of privacy if you do not use your office email account but your personal email account, or if you use your own data on your own smartphone to send those romantic emails or posts instead of using the Wi-Fi at the office or the smartphone which the company pays for.
What should you do if a failed office romance results in discriminatory behavior or creates a hostile work environment for you?
- Keep yourself safe. Make sure that you are physically safe from assault or harassment. Take a leave from work or else, ask for a re-assignment to a different work area or a different shift.
- File a complaint for harassment with your grievance machinery at work.
- If you have filed a complaint for harassment and your supervisor does not report the matter or investigate the matter, report the harassment and your supervisor’s failure to act.
- File a complaint with the EEOC.
- File a complaint with the courts.
How can I keep my romantic relationship at work safe from sexual harassment or sexual discrimination?
- Avoid romances with a superior or a subordinate. If you must fall in love, fall in love with someone of the same rank or seniority.
- Avoid romances within your own department where you will have to deal with your romantic partner at work. Friction about work issues ooze out in bed and misunderstandings in bed find their way at work.
- If there is no ban at your workplace but your employer merely discourages it, disclose your relationship.
- If you are required to sign a love contract or a declaration that you are having a romantic relationship and the romantic relationship is consensual, then sign the love contract and stick to it.
- Be discreet. Avoid public displays of affection and public displays of disaffection.
You may not always be able to help falling in love, but only fools rush in. Be informed of your rights and think twice before you let yourself fall or let yourself fly.