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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 13, 2006

'Love contract' can work at office

Gannett News Service

Ah, love. As Valentine's Day approaches, who isn't caught up with the idea of gazing into someone's eyes, amazed that the world is suddenly more beautiful, more wonderful than ever imagined?

But unfortunately, the reality is that sometimes true love crashes. The lovers who may have once seen the world with such joy are now hurling angry words at one other, slamming doors and sitting in huffy silences.

A sad situation, to be sure. But just think how much worse this scenario could be if those feelings were being vented at work.

With more and more employees reporting they have dated a co-worker, the odds are good that love in bloom and love gone wrong is going to be witnessed by co-workers. And while the boss may certainly feel bad that romance has taken a wrong turn, he feels even worse that it has happened on the job.

"Employees, of course, go into these relationships hoping for the best," says Jeffrey Tanenbaum. "But when it starts to go bad, then the employer gets concerned because it's not only often disruptive, but because the employer fears there will be charges of (sexual) harassment or favoritism."

Tanenbaum, a lawyer with Nixon Peabody in San Francisco, is very familiar with what happens when love goes wrong at work and has even written "love contracts" for employees. More formally known as a "consensual relationship agreement," the document formally informs employees about the legal issues regarding dating a co-worker or even a boss.

"These contracts actually became popular during the late 1990s when (President) Clinton and Monica Lewinsky became an issue," Tanenbaum says. "I've written dozens of them and they seem to work very well. Companies are just asking employees to agree to read a sexual harassment policy, behave professionally and go to their supervisor if problems arise."

A Ranstad USA study of 1,300 adult Americans found that 30 percent of employees say they've dated a co-worker, while nearly the same percentage believe it is appropriate to do so. The support is not nearly as strong for dating supervisors: only 7 percent said they would date a boss.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes dating employees can make is that they're not discreet about their relationships, and it just embarrasses others," Tanenbaum says.

Tanenbaum says that by putting a few ground rules in place, employers and employees can feel better about love on the job:

  • No means no. If one employee asks another employee out on a date and is turned down, then the issue should be dropped. This is especially true for bosses seeking a romantic relationship with a subordinate. If an employee feels pressured into dating it could result in a sexual harassment charge.

  • Watch the clock. Taking extended lunch hours or coffee breaks to be with a workplace sweetheart only angers the boss and other co-workers. No public displays of affection, either. Interestingly, the Ranstad survey did find that 27 percent of respondents reported kissing a co-worker.

  • Be fair. Charges of discrimination or sexual harassment can be leveled if someone believes another worker is being favored by a "significant other" on the job.

  • Consider the future. Simply transferring romantically linked employees to different areas may not solve the problem or workplace romance. If the subordinate is always the one transferred instead of a supervisor, the employer may be facing liability problems.

    Still, despite the concerns, it seems you can't keep Cupid away from the cubicles. In its own survey of love on the job, Spherion Corp. found that only 36 percent of U.S. workers think that openly dating a co-worker would jeopardize their job security or advancement opportunities, compared with 39 percent last year.

    "With more hours being spent in the workplace, it is inevitable that work can spill over into personal time," says Richard Lamond, senior vice president and chief human resource officer at Spherion. "It seems to us that the old adage, 'never mix business with pleasure' may be viewed as less taboo than in the past."