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Workplace Relationships in the #MeToo Movement

Workplace Relationships in the #MeToo Movement

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The #MeToo Movement has changed how we view and manage sexual misconduct in the workplace. We are moving away from the use of arbitration and nondisclosure agreements that protect abuser’s identities from the media and paying off accusers for their silence.

With a role in Human Resources, one of your main responsibilities is to help create and maintain a work environment where all workers feel safe.

Not every HR department fails to fully investigate workplace harassment claims or push the claims aside by using nondisclosure agreements. But, with the #MeToo Movement so present in today news, let’s discuss some action items your company may want to consider when it comes to workplace misconduct.

Encourage Regular Check-ins and Conversations with Managers and Subordinates

Implement a weekly or monthly process where managers regularly meet with their subordinated to ask how they are doing. Is there anything they could be doing differently to help create a safe and friendly work environment? If something is brought up in those meetings, make sure to take action and follow up with the employee as necessary.

Ask Everyone to Be Accountable for Each Other

In addition to managers checking in, have co-workers check in on each other. By encouraging a sense of community among co-workers, it will help them be more in tune with each other and offers a level of peer-to-peer support and guidance when needed.

Implement or Update your Company Dating Policy

According to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey, dating is very common among co-workers. It has been reported that 27 percent of employees are open to engaging in romantic relationships with coworkers. Additionally, 22 percent of US married couples met at work. This isn’t just limited to co-workers who are on at the same level dating but also employees dating someone at a higher level. Employers should be aware of the potential risk of harassment claims that can arise from relationships in the workplace. You can eliminate some of that potential risk by setting clear rules and an easy to understand dating policy.

Some of the things to include in a dating policy are statements about:

  • The policy’s goal of upholding appropriate boundaries between personal and business relationships.
  • The employer’s decision whether to prohibit or just discourage fraternization between managers and subordinates.
  • The requirement to report participation in such relationships, including those with vendors and other business associates.
  • The employer’s right to modify reporting structures, such as transferring a boss who is in a relationship with a subordinate.
  • The prohibition on physical contact between employees during work hours.
  • The employer’s anti-harassment policy and harassment-reporting mechanisms.
  • No sharing of confidential information.
  • Outlines the consequences of breaking the dating policy rules.

Consider Love Contracts

More employers are now considering the implementation and use of love contracts or consensual relationship agreements between co-workers. Such agreements are best used not only for supervisors and subordinates but also for relationships among same level employees. A love contract is usually implemented because the company has a genuine interest in protecting itself from sexual harassment claims. The love contract should simply ask the employees to agree that they are aware of the company’s polices on sexual harassment and romantic relationships among employees, that the relationship is consensual and not harassing, and ask for written consent to the workplace guidelines.

A love contract benefits the employer by identifying the rules of workplace relationships and informs employees of their rights. It also allows employers to formally acknowledge the relationship in the workplace. Having a contract in place can serve as proof that an employer took the steps to make a safe workplace environment if a harassment claim arises.

A love contract also offers benefits to employees. By signing a love contract, employees agree to relationship limitations in the workplace and to ensure that the relationship is consensual and not to help an individual more up the career ladder. It can also serve as a line of protection against any retaliation at work should the relationship come to an end.

When implementing a love contract into your workplace, make sure to address relationships that already exist. Present the contract as a way of advocating for employee well-being and high morale to prevent harassment and not as the rule-making, interfering, systematizing arms of management.  It is best practice to have employees in new relationship as well as employees in long-term relationship sign a love contract so there is an understanding not only between the employees but also with the company.

A common question asked is “What if employees refuse to sign a love contract?” Since employees are bringing their personal life to work, companies do have some rights to protect itself with the matters stated above. The purpose of a love contact should not be to prevent relationships but should be used to prevent favoritism and help maintain a professional work atmosphere. However, an employer cannot make employees sign the contract. An employees job might be at risk though if they refuse to sign and work in an at-will state. The company may consider some reporting changes whether employees choose to sign the contract to ensure that their partner isn’t in a position to benefit the employees’ career.

Another option to the love contract could be a “notification” policy.  This simply requires employees to report whenever they enter a consensual relationship.  This type of policy helps to protect the company from later charges that the relationship was not consensual and constituted sexual harassment.  With this type of policy, the employees would also have to notify the appropriate parties whenever a relationship ends.  For this reason, notification policies are sometimes seen as intrusive.  With a notification policy, the manager the relationship is being reported to, must also be required not to disclose the information, to protect privacy.

Provide Training

In a 2017 SHRM survey, 57 percent of individuals responding said they engaged in a romantic relationship at work. In other surveys, 55 percent of the HR professionals who responded said that marriage is the most likely outcome of the office romances they experienced. Other studies have reported a higher level of productivity from dating couples at work.

With relationships being so common in the workplace, it is best to provide training for supervisors and managers on how to discreetly address overt sexual behavior in the workplace. The training should cover topics like addressing intense gossip or damaging behavior especially for gay and lesbian couples as those people tend to have more negative reactions to homosexual relationships. Additionally, the training should cover how supervisors can help coach dating couples if the relationship results in lowered morale and productivity for themselves or co-workers. Other trainings topics to consider are:

  • How to handle and manage workplace relationships
  • Steps to take when made aware that employees are dating
  • Addressing office gossip around relationships
  • What disciplinary action is appropriate if the romance interferes and disrupts the workplace
  • What to do if a workplace relationship ends abruptly or becomes sexual harassment

There are other recourses that employers have as well, such as adopting a workplace non-fraternization or no-dating policy. However, one in six workplace relationships involved an affair where one person and sometimes both are married or have a significant other. Having a non-dating policy can be problematic as it is difficult to define exactly the type of behavior that will be restricted.

Closing Thoughts

While companies want to encourage a friendly, comfortable atmosphere in the workplace, an employee dating policy can help employers avoid uncomfortable situation and potential legal issues by making it clear what is and is not allowed.  The best way to avoid romantic drama in the workplace is to set specific guidelines and clearly communicate them to employees – before those relationships begin, at the onset of the relationships, and at any other necessary points in time. It should be specific, employee-friendly, and spell out the limits and parameters in today’s workplace.  A good policy is key to workplace harmony and will honor the rights of both employees and the employer.

When writing or adopting a workplace dating policy, it is important to reduce any potential legal liability.  It is suggested that banning or limiting dating between supervisors and subordinates is the most important aspect of a dating policy. It is also recommended the policies on dating include a way to report relationships that have turned hostile, and that employers must be on guard against any circumstances that could amount to harassment.  Any policies adopted must be applied consistently and should set out clearly how decisions will be made.

If you have any questions or would like additional information on drafting a workplace dating policy, please contact Joy Duce, Partner-in-Charge of Human Resources Advisory Services at 630.566.8454 or joy.duce@sikich.com

Sources:
https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/pages/dating-policy-metoo-movement.aspx
https://www.workhuman.com/workhuman/whats-metoo-movement/
https://www.bamboohr.com/blog/8-workplace-romance-facts-need-know-right-now/

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