Office Romances: Limits on Love

Happy Valentine’s Day from The Employee’s Lawyer! As that special time of the year approaches, many employees wonder just how much control an employer has over interoffice romances. Here’s a section of my book “The Employee Rights Handbook” that deals with just that. Get informed and stay aware of your rights.

Office Romances

Does management have the right to actively enforce a nonfraternization rule aimed at curbing interoffice romances?

This varies depending on the facts. One supervisor who was fired commenced a lawsuit against a former employer. The supervisor had allegedly given his live-in lover a promotion that placed her above several employees with more seniority, even though the company had an unwritten, traditional rule forbidding social relationships between management and lower-echelon employees. When questioned by the home office, the supervisor admitted that he and the coworker were lovers; citing the nonfraternization rule, the company abruptly terminated him.

The supervisor took the company to court and argued that his employment contract brought with it the company’s implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which the company violated when he was fired. He also stated that the nonfraternization rule was unfair, unreasonable, and selectively enforced. The company responded that its nonfraternization rule became reasonable and necessary after the company discovered that attachments between supervisory employees and their subordinates led to accusations of favoritism, which had a negative impact on morale.

The company also argued that since the employee had no written contract guaranteeing job security, he could be fired at any time for any or no reason. The court found that the company was legitimately concerned with appearances of favoritism and employee dissension caused by romantic relationships. Given his actions, the terminated supervisor did not make a strong case that the company failed to act in good faith toward him.

STRATEGY: Although it may be legal to forbid employees from fraternization, all employees must be treated similarly to avoid violations. For example, if an employer reprimands a male employee for dating a coworker but fires a female employee for a similar infraction, the employer may be committing illegal sex discrimination.

Some companies require employees involved in an office romance to execute a consensual social relationship agreement to reduce exposure to sexual harassment and other related claims. Such “love contracts” typically state that neither party was coerced due to a supervisor/subordinate status and that the couple independently and collectively desire to pursue a consensual sexual relationship. The contracts also require the parties not to exhibit excessive public displays of affection and to immediately confer with a human resources counselor when a problem exists so the company can conduct a fact-finding investigation to determine wrongdoing. Whether such agreements are legal and enforceable is determined on a case-by-case basis according to the facts and applicable federal and state law. Speak to an employment attorney to explore your rights and options before signing a similar document. For off-the-job illegal conduct, a company typically has the right to fire a worker if the illegal conduct harms the employer’s reputation or has a negative impact on job performance. The law is not so clear regarding attempts to regulate legal off-the-job behavior. Some cases have given employers the right to bar employees from cohabiting with persons who work for a competitor. In one such case a court upheld a company’s written policy that stated: “The Company will not continue the employment of any person who lives in the immediate household of a person employed by a competitor.” But in another case in a different state, an employer’s rule prohibiting workers from dating employees of a competitor was found to be illegal.

The topic of Employment law is a complex one and should be handled by an experienced professional. Should you have any questions on Employment law, contact The Employee’s Lawyer Steven Mitchell Sack.

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