The Love Contract Debate
Employers may want to regulate your romance.
Besides raising a few eyebrows, office romances can jeopardize your job security and put employers and co-workers on edge. If you find yourself drawn to an attractive co-worker, be aware of company policy and relatively new trends in management.
Lester Jones, attorney and law partner with the law firm of Littler Mendelson in Los Angeles, says employers have been approaching labor and employment law firms for years about work romance issues. Many companies now ask “involved” employees to sign Consensual Relationship Agreements, more commonly known as “Love Contracts.”
Love and the Law
“These types of contracts have been around for about six or seven years,” Jones says. Before you consider another date with your new office partner, give some thought to what you might want to do if asked to sign one of these agreements. “Basically, it’s an agreement to not pursue litigation against the employer if the relationship goes bad,” Jones adds. Once two employees stop dating, one person may believe that the former partner no longer treats them fairly or ignores them when a promotion should be considered.
Most employers realize that it’s unwise to ban all office romances.
It’s at this point that the less senior employee could claim that a “hostile work environment” has evolved–and pursue litigation against the employer. According to Jones, “Most employers realize that it’s unwise to try and ban all office romances. However, they are very interested in preventing these relationships from having a negative impact on the workplace.” By having both parties sign a Consensual Relationship Agreement, the two parties will be put on active notice of their separate rights and responsibilities, both during the course of the relationship and after its possible demise.
Though some employees may be fearful of waiving future legal rights, Jones says, “Many people actually feel a bit relieved when asked to sign these contracts. They realize that others will be watching and try to help them protect their legal rights.” Fortunately, most employers have not found it necessary to intervene once these types of contracts have been signed.
Whose Business Is It?
Other questions still remain. For example, when can you expect an employer to approach you–after a few lunch dates with your new friend, or when officecirculates about the relationship? “Once a relationship has become open and notorious,” Jones says, “employers are likely to approach two employees with one of these contracts.”
The term ‘open and notorious’ is ambiguous; it doesn’t necessarily imply any improper workplace shows of affection or overt signs of favoritism. Instead, it’s simply a legal term indicating that the employer believes that the relationship has become common knowledge in the office. Employers may choose to restate their expectations for respectful and responsible behavior on the job.
The Bottom Line
When approached about signing a Consensual Relationship Agreement, many employees wonder if they can refuse to sign it. These are voluntarycontracts; employers should tell both parties that they will not be penalized if they decide not to sign. However, it may be in your best interest to accept the terms.
Signing one of these agreements does not cause either party to waive all of their rights regarding sexual harassment or other wrongful behavior that may evolve at a later date, Jones says. However, these contracts normally include an arbitration provision. If any adversarial action is later contemplated, the matter must be resolved through arbitration proceedings–not the public court system.
In light of this, it’s always important to ask yourself if the relationship is really worth it. If you think it is, just be prepared to have a personnel officer or managing partner of your company approach you with one of these agreements. Hopefully, your romance will either have a happy ending or at least end amicably, regardless of whether you choose to sign on the dotted line.