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An ounce of prevention Featured

10:08am EDT July 22, 2002
Lawsuits based on office romances have risen dramatically during the past several years, says Michael Heil, an attorney specializing in labor relations and a vice president with The Divine Group, a human relations consulting firm in Cincinnati. "By the time they get to me, they're pretty ugly."

The most important piece of advice Heil can offer business owners and managers is, "Put your policy in place before the emotionalism of the situation arises."

According to Heil, a dating policy should mirror the company's policy regarding nepotism or the employment of a married couple. While it's conceivable that individuals could work in different departments, they probably shouldn't work in the same department.

What often happens with office dating situations is that the couple keeps the relationship a secret. When mangers find out, sometimes they overreact and demand that one of the individuals leaves the company. "It's invariably the female who leaves," Heil says.

If the company has a policy that one person must leave, the attorney advises letting the couple decide who will remain. Even this approach can have negative repercussions. The company could lose two valued employees, or the employee the company was hoping to retain may leave.

If a couple has been able to maintain the relationship and perform their jobs successfully, companies are often tempted to ignore policy. But Heil says any policy that is in place must be applied consistently or the company could be vulnerable to discrimination charges.

One situation that must be prohibited in a dating policy is dating between supervisors and their subordinates. "I could not think of any time when you could permit this relationship," Heil says, explaining that it could leave the company vulnerable to charges of sexual harassment.

In such cases, the plaintiff need only prove that the accused was in a position to affect the plaintiff's standing within the company. "With a supervisor, that's a given," Heil says.

The most important component of a dating policy is a statement explaining why the policy has been instituted. "Dating between employees has the potential for two negative impacts," Heil explains. "It could negatively impact an employee's job performance, and it could negatively impact the company's reputation.