By JONATHAN BERR, who has written for national media outlets for more than 15 years.
February means Valentine's Day, which should force companies to come to terms with the realities of office relationships. Forbidding them outright doesn't work -- as long as the parties are of equal status, there isn't usually a problem, according to experts.
At a water sanitation plant in Los Angeles, however, the male CEO spent plenty of time with a female aide behind closed doors. He swore that they were just working on a project. The employees at the 75-person company didn't believe him, and gossip about the relationship reached a fever pitch.
Productivity plunged as employees started to believe that the CEO was showing undue favoritism to his mistress. To make matters even more complicated, both parties in the relationship were married.
"It was a very uncomfortable situation," said Lynn D. Lieber, employment law attorney and legal advisor with Workplace Answers Inc., which investigated the situation for the company's board of directors. "They literally spent five to six hours a day (behind closed doors)."
The CEO, who promoted his mistress to be a direct report to him to protect her from the wave of office gossip, was later fired after overwhelming evidence surfaced proving the two were having an affair. The man and the woman later divorced their spouses, married each other and now have a child.
That was a happy ending of sorts, at least for the two office lovers.
But problems occur when the relationships fall apart or when one of the parties rejects the other's advances. Some companies make workers sign what are called "love contracts" where participants stipulate that they have not been coerced into having a relationship. Unfortunately, the most stringent policies in the world are no match if people are motivated to thwart them.
Along with love, marriage and children, office romances may lead to sexual harassment cases -- these days often perpetuated via social media. Workers often think that they will not face consequences at work for what they say on Facebook and Twitter in conversations with their colleagues. Those that think they won?t face consequences couldn't be more wrong, according to experts.
"This is where a lot of those situations are occurring," said Lieber, who recommends that employers develop a comprehensive set of policies to address the issue.
Companies are trying to hedge their risks for sexual harassment claims by purchasing employment practices liability insurance, though that can be expensive. Other cases fall under directors? and officers? insurance coverage.
Chad Richter, an employment attorney with the Society of Human Resources Management, said that a Fortune 500 company will likely launch an investigation within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. Insurance carriers are concerned enough about the potential liabilities that they are willing, at times, to foot the bill for sexual harassment training. It's easy to see why.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received a record 99,947 charges of employment discrimination and obtained $455.6 million in relief through its administrative program and litigation in Fiscal Year 2011. Many cases go unreported.
"If anything, there is more sexual harassment not less," said Lynne Bernabei, a Washington, D.C. attorney. "It is basically an abuse of power."
February 14, 2012
Copyright 2012© LRP Publications