Office Romance, Sexual Harassment, and Keeping Your Company Protected

Victims of sexual harassment had fewer options in years past, typically limited to either put up with inappropriate behavior or seek employment elsewhere.


Our society has come a long way in how we view and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. As a result, companies have taken added measures to ensure their employees are well educated and trained on how to handle such issues if and when they arise. Further measures have been granted to victims of sexual harassment; now if a man or woman feels harassed in the office, they have the option of suing—an option many will take.

Sexual harassment has two forms, according to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). The first would be quid pro quo harassment. This usually manifests with an employee, often a supervisor, offering a raise or promotion, or other professional perks in exchange for sexual favors. The second form of sexual harassment is defined as “hostile work environment”, which can include unwanted sexual advances, sexually offensive remarks, displaying sexually explicit pictures, crude jokes or obscene gestures.

Sexual harassment can also manifest in less-obvious ways. According to a poll released by CareerBuilder in 2013, 39% of individuals in the workplace have indulged in office romance. The same poll yielded 30% of office romances have led couples to matrimony. However, office romances can be tricky to handle, for both the participants and their employer. For starters, and perhaps most obviously, if the relationship goes sour, a bitter breakup can provoke resentment and hostility between the employees, and potentially lead to claims of harassment. Other employees might also claim the romance between their coworkers creates an atmosphere of sexual favoritism, which makes for a hostile work environment. This scenario has been upheld in some courts as sexual harassment.

With so much at stake in the workplace, it’s no wonder that many companies barred employees from dating until the early 1980s. In today’s environment, some companies have opted to have written policies regarding office romance to help protect the business in the event things turn ugly. Some companies still forbid office romances outright, whereas others discourage but don’t have any policy on record. When it comes to a romance involving a supervisor and a subordinate, most companies prohibit this sort of relationship, and might relocate one individual to a different department or location if that option is available. If the business is especially proactive, the romancing couple might be asked to sign—for lack of a better term—a love contract, which seeks to protect the company against sexual harassment claims when/if the relationship ends.

There are many steps you, as an employer, might take to best ensure your workplace environment remains friendly. While it’s important to remember and respect your employees’ right to privacy, having safeguards in place today can help save time, stress, and money in the long run. Sexual harassment claims are not covered by workplace policies and general liability, so it is important to remain aware of an potential situations and be prepared for problems that might arise. If you have questions regarding potential liability issues, drafting a workplace romance policy, or any concerns about anything discussed above, please feel free to contact the professionals at BPJ at (417) 887-3550 or email info@bpj.com.