Dating a co-worker? You may need a love contract
Just in time for Valentine’s Day: the love contract.
As more women speak out about sexual misconduct in the workplace, employers are getting increasingly nervous about all the people dating on their watch.
Many companies already forbid supervisors from asking out subordinates, but some are cracking down on romance altogether, employment lawyers and human resource consultants say. Others are looking into love contracts — known more formally as consensual relationship agreements — in which co-workers who are romantically involved sign a document stating that they are together voluntarily and are aware of the rules surrounding workplace dating.
These contracts generally note that sexual harassment is prohibited and forbid signers from being involved in each other’s jobs, or retaliating against each other down the road, in an attempt to maintain an environment free of favoritism and avoid later claims that the relationship was coerced.
“Companies are trying to get creative and proactive and doing lots of different things to protect themselves and protect the workplace,” said Jason Habinsky, an employment lawyer at Haynes and Boone in New York. “Something that might have been considered awkward or unnecessary, now companies are willing to look past that.”
Big companies are more likely than smaller businesses to have dating policies. At Facebook and Google, employees are allowed to ask a co-worker out only once, according to news reports. If they are turned down, they can’t ask again, reflecting Equal Opportunity Employment Commission guidance that asking people out repeatedly can constitute harassment.
A number of companies around Boston declined to talk about their policies. At Fidelity Investments, where two fund managers were embroiled in sexual harassment allegations last fall, prompting chief executive Abigail Johnson to move her office in order to keep a closer eye on her workforce, senior employees may not date anyone they manage or whose career they could substantially impact.
And it’s not just private companies getting involved in their employees’ private lives. Just last week, the US House of Representatives voted to prohibit sexual relationships between lawmakers and staffers under their supervision.
In a day and age when consent apps can be used to document if a person has agreed to have sexual relations, and accounts of coerced hookups end up splashed online, it’s clear that dating has become more fraught for everyone.
But the #MeToo movement, and ensuing rule-tightening, may be making co-workers especially cautious about dating. Over the past decade, about 40 percent of people surveyed annually by the employment site CareerBuilder said they had dated a co-worker. At the end of last year, the number dropped to 36 percent — a 10-year low.
Men have also become more cautious about office romance, according to a new annual poll by the workplace rankings company Vault, which found that for the first time in six years, men were more likely than women to find any workplace relationship unacceptable.
Love contracts are still relatively uncommon — one workplace consultancy estimates that less than 17 percent of companies require co-workers to report that they are dating. But 45 percent of respondents to the Vault survey said they were aware that their companies had some kind of office romance policy, up from 24 percent in 2013.
“Companies have to walk a fine line because they don’t want to be the love police, but they do have to be careful,” said Mark Whitney, an employment lawyer in Marblehead who specializes in representing executives. “You don’t want love spats spilling over into the workplace.”
In the past year, Whitney has had four clients who were asked to sign love contracts after it was discovered that they were involved with a co-worker — while they were married to other people. In one case, involving two executives at a major corporation in the Boston area, the company asked the employees to sign a love contract after the affair came to light.
A few years ago, the employer probably wouldn’t have reacted so aggressively, Whitney said. And it can backfire. When couples are asked to sign love contracts, one or both of them often ends up leaving the company, he said.
“People are usually not terribly happy when they sign these things,” he said. “They don’t love that their personal lives are being memorialized in a corporate document.”
Human resources consultant Jay Starkman is not a fan of love contracts for that very reason: “It certainly is a morale killer. ‘I’m having a relationship and I’ve got to go sign a contract about it.’ ”
A company policy requiring love contracts could also potentially stifle harassment complaints if a victim is reluctant to come forward because he or she didn’t report the relationship.
Forbidding dating all together is even sillier, said Starkman, who runs Engage PEO in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s like prohibition. People are just going to drink behind the scenes.”
Companies that have had to deal with ugly co-worker breakups or harassment lawsuits tend to be more proactive about having employees sign love contracts, employment lawyers say. These documents can be helpful in resolving allegations raised against a company by showing that the employer was trying to protect and inform employees about the rules surrounding the relationship.
“I don’t necessarily think it wins the day [in court], but it’s a helpful fact,” said Habinsky, who, like other employment lawyers interviewed, had never used one in court.
Beyond protecting the company, love contracts can protect workers, too, said Clarence Belnavis, an employment lawyer at Fisher Phillips in Seattle and Portland, by letting them know human resources is open to addressing any potential problems and takes the issue seriously.
“Sitting down and having these conversations with folks lets people know that any complaints are going to be welcome,” he said. “I think it’s a very empowering conversation.”
Love contracts can also make for an amusing plot point.
At Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company on the TV show “The Office,” Michael is so thrilled to sign one with his boss, Jan, that he does so with flourish — and dots his “i” with a heart.