Dating in the Workplace

The Wall Street Journal in March 2014 quoted in a study that about 10% of Americans who met their spouses between 2005 and 2009, met through co-workers. A Google Consumer Survey, of those between 18 – 34 year olds, found that 17.9% met their spouse at work, and 39.6% started their relationship platonically.

Individuals who work closely together may start out as friendly coworkers, but can end up being lovers. How does sexual harassment factor into this scenario? A sexual harassment claim can impact a company’s bottom line. How does a company protect itself from claims of harassment?

First, let’s define sexual harassment. Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) states that sexual harassment is unlawful. It is unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s gender. It is unlawful if sexual advances, requests for sexual favors are unwelcome. Verbal or physical harassment is unlawful sexual harassment if harassment is sexual in nature. Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severed that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as victim is forced to resign).

Sexual relationship between consenting adults who work together is not sexual harassment. It becomes a sexual harassment issue when the relationship ends and one insists on continuing the relationship. It becomes sexual harassment if the other party is forced to resign as a result of the repeated calls or repeated demands for continuation of the relationship. It becomes sexual harassment when someone’s behavior towards a former partner becomes unacceptable to the other. Employers often take one of three steps 1.) ignore the relationship and hope no one claims sexual harassment; 2.) adopt a “no dating” policy although this simply drives the employees to hide the relationship; or 3.) adopt a policy that acknowledges that people will fall in love, or lust, with people they work with regardless of company policy.

How does the employer prevent the relationship from becoming problematic? The employer should take proactive step by creating a policy that 1.) defines sexual harassment and includes the statement that sexual harassment in the workplace will not be tolerated; 2.) have both parties acknowledge the relationship; 3.) both parties acknowledge that they entered into the relationship voluntarily and not one borne of sexual harassment or pressure; 4.) the company may, at any time transfer, reassign responsibilities or terminate one or both employees if the relationship impacts the workplace; 5.) they must maintain a professional relationship and public display of affection during work hours or other behavior that may be construed by others as hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment is not allowed; 6.) acknowledge a relationship with individuals who do not work for the company but may do business with the company as a consultant or vendor or in any way representing the company; 7.) they will not participate in any company processes that affect the other’s pay, advancement or performance reviews or career; and 8.) should the relationship end or advances are no longer welcome, they will respect the other person’s decision and not engage in a behavior that will violate the workplace policy against sexual harassment.

Grace Donaldson is the COO/General Manager of Pacific Human Resource Services, providing training, HR consulting, recruitment and staffing, and drug testing services.   PHRS may be contacted by phone: 671-637-6906 or email: info@phrsguam.com or visit its website: http://www.phrsguam.com

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