Posted online at ChicagoBusiness.com on February 14, 2001.
Cupid's bow is firmly in hand today, and his arrows d'amour are carefully aimed at those whose lives he'll change forever.
Lovers everywhere trade Valentines and share chocolates and champagne. Even lovers who happen to work together. And therein lies a trap for the unwary employer.
Take the case of two employees, one supervising the other but both very much involved in a romantic relationship. Other employees may cry "foul" if the subordinate gets a raise or is promoted or just treated better.
They may also claim unlawful discrimination and force the company to settle with them or go to trial. And where co-workers have established a pattern of favoritism, courts have been sympathetic and awarded big judgments.
Things get even dicier when employees fall out of love. Allegations can fly about how a subordinate was asked to submit to a sexual advance in return for a benefit at work, or how the workplace became intolerable because of unwelcome sexual advances. Both federal and state laws protect employees against sexual harassment.
Yet, many romantic relationships begin at work. And most companies cut employees who date each other some slack.
In fact, some employers justifiably fear that adopting an anti-dating policy could land them in court, too. Employees have a right to do just about anything they want to do on their own time, as long as it's legal and doesn't involve the use of company property.
But workplace dating is a liability management problem, and that's how a growing number of employers see it. Witness the prominent law school which this month forced the resignation of a dean who violated an anti-nepotism policy which includes romantic relationships between individuals when one supervises the other.
Most employers have no written policy at all on workplace romance. Others freely permit peers to date but allow managers to become romantically involved with subordinates only if they stop supervising them. And it is the manager who is expected to step forward and seek a transfer.
But some employers are starting to move in a different direction. They're requiring a supervisor and a subordinate who date to disclose their relationship and sign a "love contract," professing only that their relationship is voluntary, consensual, and totally unrelated to the company. The employees are also obliged to sign on to the company's sexual harassment policy and agree to settle any dispute outside court.
Love contracts are becoming part of the popular culture and may gain acceptance: they figured prominently in the plot of a recent Ally McBeal episode.
They may also prevent some employees from being trapped in power-driven relationships they don't really want. And they may keep some companies out of harm's way before passion boils over.
In this season of romance, let's just hope that the company lawyer's heart will be in the right place- and it won't be his mission to deflect Cupid's arrow.
Marc J. Lane ([email protected]) is a Chicago lawyer and financial planner and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law.
Copyright © 2001 by Crain Communications Inc.