“LOVE CONTRACTS” PUBLICIZE YOUR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AT WORK – AND RAISE MANY QUESTIONS
By Daniel A. Gwinn, GWINN LEGAL PLLC
QUESTION: I manage a small bistro. I recently started dating one of our servers. It’s going really well, but the owner told me I need to sign a love contract, stating I am in an “intimate personal relationship” if we want to keep seeing each other – and if we both want to keep our jobs. He says this will help prevent a lawsuit if we break up. Although our relationship is getting kind of serious, signing a contract seems weird. Is this something I have to do? We are both being asked to sign it.
ANSWER: Increasingly, some employers are turning to Consensual Relationship Agreements, or “Love Contracts,” as a possible way to reduce the possibility of sexual harassment claims from office romances gone wrong. If your employer requires employees involved in workplace relationships to sign a love contract – you probably need to sign it.
You’re not alone in having a relationship with a co-worker. In a 2017 careerbuilder.com survey, 36 percent of workers reported dating a co-worker, supervisor or employee. The office seems to be a good place to meet a future mate: The same survey found almost a third of all office relationships lead to marriage.
While love contracts can be required for any office relationship, they are often used if one of the parties in the workplace romance is in a position to make decisions about the terms and conditions of employment of the other. In plain English, employers are more likely to use these contracts when one person in a relationship could fire or demote the other if things go sour. For employees of equal status, a love contract puts everyone on notice that the relationships exists, and potentially eliminates the possibility of an employee’s claims of ignorance of an employer’s policy prohibiting sexual and other harassment.
There are rational reasons for an employer to ask for a love contract. Relationships between supervisors and/or co-workers can lead to charges of favoritism, nepotism, sexism, harassment and retaliation, among others. A supervisor’s decision to give his/her deserving sweetie a raise or a promotion, for example, will likely be second-guessed by other workers. (“He only got the raise ‘cause she’s sleeping with the boss.”).
Breaking up is hard to do, and may be even harder in a workplace romance. The career builder survey reported that 6 percent of workers left their job after an office romance went bad. The fallout from a breakup was even harder on women – 9 percent left their jobs. In a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, “the hottest love has the coldest end.”
Typically, a love contract will require the parties to state that they are in a relationship, that it is consensual, that either party may terminate the relationship without fear of workplace retaliation and that (if applicable) neither employee will accept a direct supervisory position over the other. Sometimes a love contract will require a supervisor to agree to refrain from participating in any decisions regarding his or her lower-level love or agreeing, in advance, to transfer to another position or location if the other party obtains a promotion with supervisory authority over his or her love interest. Love contracts often contain language advising each party of his or her right, at their expense, to have the document reviewed by an attorney before signing it.
One problem with love contracts, however, is that many people who are involved in workplace relationships don’t want to publicize them. According to the annual Office Romance survey by careerbuilder.com, 27 percent of men and 21 percent of women admitted that one party to their office relationship was married at the time. Even when two singles become romantically involved at work, they may not want to broadcast the fact.
Thus, the people an employer most needs to be bound by a love contract, are often the same people who keep their relationship secret.
A love contract may offer employees an opportunity to consider the impact of their romantic relationship on their jobs, and may lead to discussions of appropriate workplace conduct. And, of course, they might help provide some protection to an employer if employees’ consensual and open relationship devolves from heavenly to hellish.
Even though statistics fail to demonstrate the effectiveness of love contracts in combatting harassment and other workplace ills, their use is steadily becoming more popular. Signing a love contract may feel weird, but refusing to sign could mean losing your job. You certainly have other options, including but not limited to dating someone outside of work, or choosing to work someplace other than where your current flame is also employed.
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