Employment Law Report
Workplace Romances: Avoiding Liability from Office Secrets
Spring has sprung. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming. And some of your employees may be in the midst of budding romances – or continuing longtime relationships. A recent employee survey by Namely highlighted the prevalence and secrecy of office romances.¹ Forty percent (40%) of Namely’s survey respondents indicated that they had engaged in an intimate relationship with a coworker. However, less than 5 percent of all respondents stated that they would tell Human Resources if they were involved in a workplace relationship. Even if an employer’s policy required employees to report relationships to HR, only 42 percent said they would comply. (That 42 percent seems optimistically high, given the mere 5 percent of respondents who indicated they would tell HR in the first place.)
The take away – which may come as no surprise – is that employees have a deep distrust of HR. Specifically, employees are distrustful of HR’s ability to maintain the confidentiality of information about workplace relationships. Only 14 percent of Namely’s survey respondents fully trusted HR in matters of romance, and nearly half of respondents had little-to-no confidence that HR would keep disclosed romances to themselves.
Employees hide office romances for any number of reasons. They may fear the judgment of their peers, scrutiny from their superiors and interference with their personal lives outside of work. Whatever the reason for secrecy, employers cannot monitor unknown workplace relationships, and therefore, it may be too late to take directed action to protect against liability resulting from those unknown relationships when problems arise.
There are, however, preventive measures that employers can implement to limit the potential risks associated with workplace romances. The first is working to develop employees’ confidence in HR. Employees generally believe that any disclosure to HR will only lead to problems for them. Accordingly, it is important for employers to encourage their HR teams to build strong professional rapport with employees through open communication and visibility in the workplace. HR often is segregated from other employees because it works with payroll, performance data and other sensitive information. However, employees are far more likely to disclose a workplace relationship when they see the HR team as fellow coworkers rather than as an intimidating department. In addition, HR cannot build trust among employees without an emphasis on confidentiality. Trust is built through consistent confidentiality, and one instance of loose lips can undo those efforts.
Employers also should implement and abide by a robust anti-harassment policy, accompanied by regular employee training. Romance in the workplace is a reality that employers must deal with. The law does not bar intimate relationships between coworkers, but it does prohibit harassment on the basis of sex and other grounds. The difficulty for employers is identifying and preventing an employee relationship from crossing the line into unwanted sexual behavior. Supervisor-subordinate relationships in particular are prone to such abuses, and they can easily fuel favoritism and resentment in the workplace. Having a policy in place and a well-trained staff to enforce it is crucial to limiting the employer’s potential liability.
The attorneys of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP, are available to advise employers on a wide variety of employment matters. Please contact us if you believe your anti-harassment policy or employee handbook needs to be reviewed or if you wish to schedule an anti-harassment training for your HR team or employees.
¹ Andy Prystanski, “New ‘Love @ Work’ Survey Sheds Light on Office Romance,” Namely (Mar. 8, 2018), https://blog.namely.com/blog/love-work-survey-sheds-light-on-office-romance.