Love Contracts: Help for Hot Messes

They arrive at work separately. They never touch each other in your presence. Then, as you chair a meeting, you see his gray eyes seek hers out across the conference table. She returns his gaze; her eyes linger. Suddenly you know. The senior manager, despite all the sexual harassment seminars he’s attended, appears romantically intertwined with an accounting clerk.

If you’re in charge, how do you handle this hot mess?

The reality

Some managers and supervisors would never have an affair with an employee they oversee or an employee in their company. Others consider the workplace a dating pond in which they fish. Still others fall into a relationship that makes them disregard risks. According to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, one in three U.S. employees dates a co-worker.1 Thirty-five percent have dated someone in their workplace.2

You’ll find more information on workplace romance in 2022; actions employers need to take now, and when workplace romance isn’t necessarily “actionable” in “Workplace Romance, 3 Real-life potential hot messes,”

Given the reality of workplace romance, employers attempt to minimize their liability by establishing clear anti-harassment policies, providing annual training for employees and managers, by improving their procedures for reporting sexual harassment complaints and by promptly and neutrally investigating rumors.

If sexual harassment training sessions, company policies and stern warnings fail, what can employers do? Clearly, consensual romantic relationships differ from the unwelcome sexual conduct that creates a hostile working environment. We all know that some relationships which begin as welcome and consensual can morph into problems, particularly after the relationship ends. More than one employer finds itself on the receiving end of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a manager and the employer by a former romantic partner as the emotions that accompany a break-up turn into a workplace problem.

The love contract

Some employers, seeking to avoid sexual harassment claims and limit employer liability, ask each romantic partner to sign a consensual relationship agreement called a “love contract.” These written agreements affirm that those signing them acknowledge they are aware of the company’s policies on sexual harassment and that the relationship is consensual and welcome. These contracts ask that the employee immediately inform the employer if the relationship ends becomes harassing.

Love contracts are confidential. They are not intended to invade a manager or employee’s privacy, but to protect the employer and set boundaries to ensure workplace professionalism. Employers can’t require managers or employees to sign contracts, though those who refuse to do so may find their careers impacted.

Sample agreement

A love contract may include language such as what follows, however, please have this or any policy, contract or agreement reviewed and refined by your corporate attorney.

“I have voluntarily entered a social relationship that is welcome and consensual.

“I acknowledge that my employer is committed to providing a workplace free from harassment, discrimination, favoritism and conflicts of interest. I have read and understand my employer’s anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and agree to continue to comply with them. I affirm that this relationship does not violate my employer’s anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and that participation in this relationship has not been made a condition or term of employment.

“I understand my employer will not tolerate sexual harassment or other unwelcome or offensive conduct that creates a hostile work environment. I agree not to engage in public displays of affection or other inappropriate conduct in the workplace or at work-related functions. I agree not to engage in conduct that coworkers or employees could reasonably regard as favoritism.

“I agree to behave professionally toward the person with whom I am in this relationship, even if the relationship ends. I agree that I may end the relationship without suffering workplace retaliation. I agree to inform my employer immediately if this relationship ends or if the conduct of the other individual is no longer welcome.

“I have been allowed to consult with an attorney prior to signing this agreement.”

Additional protections

Employers can require that any manager or supervisor involved in a romantic relationship avoid engaging in any discussion or decision related to his/her subordinate employee’s employment, whether related to job evaluations, assignments or scheduling, compensation, promotion or demotion or discipline or discharge.

Not iron-clad

Despite these safeguards, love contracts don’t offer iron-clad protection, given that relationships may end in hurt feelings or ill will. The subordinate employee may later claim to have felt coerced to sign the love contract, a legitimate argument for employees subject to employment at-will. Finally, contracts lose all or most of their value if the parties involved don’t live up to their agreements, which can happen when emotions become involved.

(c) 2022 Lynne Curry

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2 thoughts on “Love Contracts: Help for Hot Messes

  1. Love contracts is an interesting solution to a perplexing and frequent problem–romance between coworkers. Then, as you wisely point out, things can still go wrong–esp. if people do not uphold their agreement or if the relationship ends badly. Yes, it seems a promising approach.

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