On Law

August 27, 2002

September 17, 2002

October 1, 2002

When romance happens in the office

With increasing frequency, clients call to report that one of their top managers has begun a dating relationship with one of their better employees, and they ask whether this might pose a problem.

My response? It depends.

If the relationship ends in a lifetime of married bliss -- no problem. Otherwise, there may well be a problem when today's lovebirds break up and become tomorrow's bitter enemies.

Once the only risk flowing from a workplace romance was the possibility of gossip and an occasional sexually transmitted disease. Nowadays, however, a poorly considered date with a co-worker can amount to career suicide.

This is due to the ever-expanding definition of sexual harassment and the increasing tendency of some jilted lovers to use the harassment laws as a weapon for revenge.

Take, for instance, the manager who begins a relationship with a subordinate, who initially is flattered by the boss' attentions and willingly enters into a consensual relationship which may last for several months.

Ultimately, however, the boss decides to break it off.

The spurned subordinate may then claim to have felt pressured into the relationship, and that if they hadn't gone along with it they would have been fired.

Such a claim often results even though the boss never said anything about the relationship being a condition of employment.

But history is often rewritten by the time these cases get to court.

And what if the subordinate breaks off the relationship, and the boss -- feeling bewildered, hurt and perhaps even angry -- continues to pursue the subordinate at work anyway?

The subordinate could claim a hostile working environment has been created. And the employer may be liable.

Suppose the spurned boss decides to use his or her position of authority to retaliate against the subordinate for terminating the relationship?

Workplace romances can present problems.

On one hand, many marriages and legitimate romances are sparked among co-workers, and it's difficult for an employer to write -- let alone enforce -- a company policy that keeps employees from falling in love.

But employers can and must enforce rules against sexual harassment.

And employees, especially managers, have to use exceptionally good judgment when becoming romantically involved with a colleague, and, if it applies, determining how such a relationship will end.

A workplace romance ending without tact and sensitivity could be just the beginning of a lawsuit.

Hoffman is managing partner of the San Diego office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, a national law firm that exclusively represents management in labor and employment matters. He regularly advises employers on navigating the obstacles created by state and federal laws. Hoffman can be reached at choffman@laborlawyers.com.

August 27, 2002

September 17, 2002

October 1, 2002