Don't fall in love on the job Featured

10:08am EDT July 22, 2002
A relationship with one of your staff members just ended-you thought, on good terms. Then, a few days later, her attorney drops a sexual harassment lawsuit on your desk-filled with accusations about how you forced her into the relationship in exchange for a promotion.

It sounds like the plot for the next big Hollywood feature, right?

Wrong. It's just one of many real life lawsuits working its way through the court system.

Engaging in an office romance is risky enough as it is, but when that romance involves a supervisor and a subordinate, it's like dancing on a volcano's rim, says Jeff Weber, an attorney at Millisor & Nobil's Cleveland office.

"You instantly have a problem if you have a supervisor dating a subordinate," says Weber, who practices human relations management law. The consequences of that type of relationship, he says, often outweigh the benefits.

There's the possibility of a perceived impropriety by other staff members-such as giving favors to the subordinate. That could be anything from providing a sales lead to steering a favorable project that person's way. "It's kind of hard if you're dating somebody to treat them as objectively as you treat everybody else," says Weber. "It's just not going to happen."

And what if the relationship crumbles?

"If you have people who are dating consensually, what truly is consensual now may not be characterized as consensual later," Weber says. "The subordinate may later say it wasn't consensual and that they were pressured into the relationship because of their career."

To protect managers from these issues some companies have adopted policies forbidding workplace relationships between supervisors and subordinates. So far, the courts have backed these policies, but Weber still suggests carefully worded language which lays out precisely the company's intentions.

"You've got to watch the possibility of drafting a policy that will, say, adversely affect women," says Weber. "You need make sure people know when they're violating it and when they're not. It's also important to put the reasons why you're writing the policy in there-for example, to avoid the appearance of favoritism or accusations of improprieties."

But policies aren't a panacea, warns Weber, who says the only way to avoid problems is not to get involved at all. "A lot of time people just look at what the situation is, rather than how the situation can be perceived and recharacterized," he says. "I definitely would think twice about it before doing it."