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Can a Workplace Relationship Be Considered Harassment?
Harassment is a type of employment discrimination involving unwanted, inappropriate, or hostile behavior in the workplace. While workplace relationships are not considered harassment per se, it is possible for workplace relationships, especially ones of a romantic nature, to lead to situations that give rise to harassment claims.
There are a few common ways that a workplace relationship can create liability:
- Sexual Harassment Claims: Workplace relationships, particularly those between a supervisor and a subordinate, expose employers to claims of sexual harassment. Voluntary romantic relationships that end badly could result in a spurned employee claiming that the relationship was actually the result of coercion or targeting their former partner for harassment and humiliation out of spite.
- Hostile work environment claims: Other employees could file a claim for hostile work environment if the workplace relationship results in pervasive verbal or physical sexual behavior in the workplace.
- Conflict of Interest Claims: Workplace relationships often lead to favoritism – work, opportunities, perks, and benefits being allocated inappropriately or unfairly.
How Can Employers Avoid Liability for Workplace Relationships?
Explicit, company-wide dating policies should prevent most of these problems, as long as they are clear and uniformly enforced. The policies most often used are:
- Complete Ban: A complete ban on workplace relationships prohibits dating between any two employees. While this policy might seem the most straightforward, it does pose enforcement problems as well as the issue of how violations will be disciplined.
- Partial Ban: A partial ban on workplace relationships only prohibits dating between supervisors and subordinates, and prohibits executive members, such as CEOs, from dating anyone in the workplace.
- Documentation and Management: A documentation and management policy requires employees to disclose workplace relationships to their supervisors or human resources department. The employees are typically required to sign a document stating that the relationship is consensual and that they understand the applicable workplace discrimination and harassment policies. The employer then conducts some degree of monitoring to ensure that there is no abuse of power or favoritism.
- Discrimination and Harassment Policy Only: Employers also have the option to ignore workplace relationships altogether, as long as they do not interfere with work. However, declining to utilize a dating policy does not exempt the employer from maintaining and enforcing workplace discrimination and harassment policies.
These policies may also include annual sexual harassment awareness training, some of which may be mandated by state employment law.
Should I Consult an Attorney Regarding Workplace Relationship Issues?
If you are having issues in your office or workplace with another co-worker that cannot be resolved internally by the company's human resources department, you may need to consult with an employment lawyer to learn what options are available.
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Last Modified: 10-09-2015 09:02 PM PDT
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