Sexual harassment is a tremendously complex subject, and given the complicated reality of relationships and the issue of consensuality, significant gray areas in law and policy are almost inevitable. Workplace dating policies are certainly one place where gray areas can creep in. In practice, even a blanket no-dating policy does not completely protect employers from claims of sexual harassment, never mind being difficult to enforce and generally unpopular among employees.
No Specific Dating Policy
Many businesses, especially smaller businesses, make a conscious decision to have no specific dating policy. According to Chas Rampenthal, general counsel and vice president of product development at LegalZoom, choosing to go without a dating policy and letting the rules on harassment and discrimination do the job is not really exposing yourself to legal liability -- as long as you do have well-designed policies on harassment and discrimination. Intra-office dating can lead to other problems, too. Productivity may go down when people are distracted during the day, and dating in the chain of command may lead to suspicions that favoritism is at work.
Notification Policy or Love Contract
Another option for employers is requiring employees to notify management when they are in a consensual relationship with another employee, management or vendor. This kind of notification policy is often referred to as a "love contract," as the employees involved are asked to sign a contract acknowledging the consensual status of their relationship. Employees should be reminded of relevant considerations, such as no public displays of affection at the workplace, and they should be given a chance to consult with an attorney before they sign the love contract.
No-dating policies, also referred to as anti-fraternization policies, offer businesses strong liability protection, but they are no panaceas. Rampenthal points out that you must define and specifically describe the conduct you want to prohibit. Will your policy restrict just restrict "relationships" or forbid all kinds of romantic involvement, including casual dating? And what about socializing outside of work? Other HR experts also mention that a blanket no-dating policy is both difficult to enforce and can have a negative impact on employee morale. No-dating policies are perceived especially negatively by younger workers. In a recent Workplace Options survey, 85 percent of 18 to 29 year olds replied that they would have a romantic relationship with a co-worker, compared to 35 percent for 30-46 year olds and around 30 percent of 47-66 year olds.
Most employers trust their employees to show good judgment in workplace relationships. The real issue is avoiding legal liability for potential harassment cases, not preventing employees from the pursuit of happiness in their personal lives. This has resulted in a general trend of employers focusing their workplace dating policies on banning dating within the chain of authority. In smaller businesses, this can effectively ban almost any management-employee relationships, but in larger businesses with multiple departments and chains of authority, it is not as restrictive.
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