Q: Yesterday our HR manager unexpectedly came into my office, closed the door and asked about my relationship with a senior manager. My guard immediately went up, as I’ve been in a private relationship with the senior manager for more than a year. He’s in the process of a messy divorce and our relationship is none of my company’s business.
I said that the manager was a nice man and added that we didn’t interact much at work. She then told me that another employee had spotted the senior manager and me leaving a restaurant holding hands and getting into a car together. I stood up, told the HR manager that I didn’t appreciate her invading my privacy based on gossip and started to leave my office. She told me to sit down, said she needed to protect the organization and handed me what she called a “love contract.”
I read it over, found it offensive and am not about to sign it. It puts on paper something that, if disclosed, could create harm. I don’t report to this manager and we’ve been careful to keep our relationship outside the workplace. Since we’re consenting adults, what business is it of my employer? If I don’t sign this document, will he or I face repercussions?
A: Even though you don’t directly report to this manager, your employer has a legitimate interest in your relationship.
Since this senior manager ranks above you in your company’s hierarchy, your company has potential liability if your relationship ends poorly, he somehow negatively influences your job future and you claim sexual harassment. Or what if your current supervisor needs to discipline, terminate or lay you off for performance or other reasons and you allege the senior manager played a part in that decision?
A U.S. Supreme Court case ruled that should a subordinate employee face negative job action based on the employee’s acceptance of or rejection of his/her sexual advances, the company is automatically liable for the supervisor’s harassing conduct. Your signature on the love contract, which simply spells out that your relationship is welcome and consensual, assures your employer that the senior manager hasn’t harassed you.
Next, your relationship went from private to public the moment you were spotted. Love contracts ask that you acknowledge and agree to your employer’s anti-harassment policies, maintain professional conduct while in the workplace and while using company technology. Because “is she receiving favoritism” or somehow benefiting from this romance speculation can sour morale, your employer has an interest in making sure you and your manager understand and adhere to professional boundaries.
The HR manager can’t make you sign the contract. If, however, you and your manager work “at will,” your jobs might be at risk if either or both of you refuse to sign what your employer considers a risk-prevention method. At this point, your company’s other senior managers may have real questions about your lover’s judgment.
In my HR On-call work, I regularly hand employees involved with managers love contracts and ask them to sign them. When the employees say “this is none of your business,” I ask them to “write a note that your relationship with “x” manager is voluntary, none of my business and non-harassing” or sign a love contract agreement. The agreement states “I’ve voluntarily entered into a social relationship that does not involve sexual harassment,” will behave professionally in the workplace at all times and understand I may terminate this relationship at any time without suffering workplace retaliation.”
I then place the agreement in an envelope and seal and date it and place it in a locked file. In this way, I give the employee as much privacy as possible and yet at least partially protect their employer. Because relationships morph over time, I may repeat the process every 30 days.
Finally, how many relationships do you know that end without hurt feelings? Employers need to realize love contracts don’t eliminate all problems. An employee can later claim to have signed the agreement under duress and without an attorney’s advice. Also, you and your manager need to realize that others may already be well aware of your relationship.
© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.