Yesterday our HR manager dropped by my office, closed the door and asked about my relationship with a senior manager. My guard went up. I’ve been in a private relationship with the senior manager for over one year. He’s in the process of a messy divorce. Our relationship is none of my company’s business.
I said the manager was a nice man, and that we only occasionally interacted at work.
She told me that another employee spotted the senior manager and me holding hands when leaving a restaurant, and getting in a car together. I stood up, told the HR manager that I didn’t appreciate her invading my privacy based on gossip, and began to leave my office. She told me to sit down and said she needed to protect the organization. She 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. We’ve been careful to keep our relationship outside of the workplace. Since we’re consenting adults, what business is it of my employer’s?
If I don’t sign this document, will he or I face repercussions?
Even though you don’t 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 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 liable for the supervisor’s harassing conduct. Your signature on the love contract, which 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 a coworker spotted you. 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. Your company’s other senior managers may question your lover’s judgment.
In my HR On-call work, I regularly handed employees involved with managers love contracts and asked them to sign them. When the employees said, “This is none of your business,” I asked them to “write a note in their own handwriting that their relationship with “x” manager is voluntary, none of my business and non-harassing” or sign a love contract agreement. The agreement stated, “I 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 end this relationship without suffering workplace retaliation.”
I then placed the agreement in an envelope, sealed and dated it and placed it in a locked file. In this way, I gave the employee as much privacy as possible and yet at least partially protect their employer. Because relationships morph over time, I repeated 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 few secrets exist in the workplace.
(c) 2022 Lynne Curry
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