Managing the office romance

08-03-2019

Managing the office romance

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The re/insurance industry is no stranger to sex scandals. Relationships between colleagues will happen no matter what, so how can employers ensure they protect themselves and their workforce when Cupid’s arrow lands? Intelligent Insurer reports.

“I’ve definitely known of people who have had affairs and as a result have been politely asked to leave.” Helen Farr, Fox Williams“ The senior person may be of more value and may be harder to terminate than a less senior person.” David Woolf, Drinker Biddle and ReathWhen chemistry strikes, romance at work can become unavoidable, regardless of the potentially career-ending pitfalls.

Concerns about reputational damage or future harassment claims failed to stop Michelle and Barack Obama, who met while working at a Chicago law firm, or Bill and Melinda Gates, who fell for each other’s charms after chatting at work (in a Microsoft carpark).

With the amount of time people spend at work together it is no surprise that attraction happens. It’s a primal urge that can override rational thought. According to a survey of employees by employment website CareerBuilder, more than a third—36 percent—of workers had dated a co-worker, while 31 percent met their future spouse at the office.

A workplace tryst is not always sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, however.

The survey revealed that more than a quarter of men, 27 percent, reported having an affair with a colleague where one person was married, as did 21 percent of women. Six percent said they’d left a job because a workplace liaison had soured.

How involved should employers be in the love lives of their workforce?

“Legally speaking there’s not a lot of regulation or rules when a relationship is consensual,” says David Woolf, a US-based partner at global law firm Drinker Biddle and Reath.

“There are certainly best practices that have evolved; they are mostly employer-dependent,” Woolf says.

Historically, he explains, employers have not been interested in regulating this type of conduct, other than to protect their businesses and their work.

Certain rules or company policies, such as ‘love contracts’—seen mainly in the US—can help prevent future problems.

Declare your love

Telling your employer that you are in a relationship with a colleague can prevent a lot of headaches for everyone.

The instigators of two multimillion-dollar legal claims for “wrongful termination” filed against Markel might attest to that. The two CEOs involved left the company after an internal investigation discovered an “undisclosed relationship”.

Helen Farr, partner at Fox Williams solicitors, says some employers like to have relationships between co-workers declared, so that no-one then needs to move jobs or leave.

“It’s quite common among banking clients to have that approach; if you have a serious boyfriend/girlfriend type relationship you are supposed to declare it.”

The question of when a romance becomes a relationship that should be declared is a tricky one. Is it on a first date? When things become intimate? When you’ve met each other’s parents or children? Farr says it is a grey area.

Staff who agree they’re doing more than harmless flirting and decide to fess up may be surprised to hear that some employers have a policy requiring people to leave.

“I’m aware of one organisation in the UK that has taken this approach, quite recently. They want one or other of you to leave. But that’s untested as of yet,” she says.

Conflicts of interest

Power imbalances create a different issue, says Woolf, explaining that it is common to have a rule that two employees can’t be involved if one is subordinate to the other or if one has direct managerial or budgetary authority over the other.

“It’s a conflict of interest issue,” he says. “For example, is a supervisor charged with reviewing a subordinate going to be fair?

“If there is some kind of promotion or an advancement, the company may still go to the supervisor and ask his or her opinion but they may treat it differently if they’re in a relationship.”

In those instances, relationships should be declared to protect against claims of favouritism or discrimination from other colleagues. Declaration can also ensure that potential harassment issues can be dealt with as early as possible.

In the era of #MeToo, transparency and honesty make a lot of sense for people who might become vulnerable after a relationship has gone south.

One way to formalise this further is with a ‘love contract’, something favoured by particularly litigious-savvy employers in the US.

If the relationship breaks down, the contract is supposed to limit the legal liability of the employer, says Farr.

However, Woolf says, while this could be a nice first step for the employer, it is not the be all and end all.

“You need to write the contract the correct way, including to say that if it changes or there are any issues please contact us. Then the employer needs to stay vigilant,” he says.

However, don’t expect problems to disappear because people have signed on the dotted line.

“The situation may arise where one person is keener than the other,” says Farr, “so the whole situation can be a nightmare to manage.”

Secrets and lies


Drinker Biddle and Reath, Fox Williams, Office Romance, Sex Scandal, Resignation, Terminate, affairs

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