Managing Employees

Lust and Love in the Workplace

Lust and Love in the Workplace
Image credit: The Office | NBC
Reader Resource

Position yourself for growth in 2017—join us live at the Entrepreneur 360 Conference in Long Beach, Calif. on Nov. 16. Secure Your Seat »

Let’s face it. Almost every businessperson works day and night.

Is your iPhone next to your bed? Do you check your email before your sleep?  

So as work cascades into every aspect of life, it is not surprising that personal issues (including matters romantic and sexual) also cascade into the workplace. .

When I have talked with managers about the risks of supervisory-subordinate dating, many have said, "If I can’t date people with whom I work, I won’t be able to date at all because I am always working.:  

Love happens as a result of proximity, common interests and shared passions.  

Around Valentine’s Day, many employees will be sending cards to workplace paramours.  

But love and lust are in the workplace air every day. So here are six suggestions to minimize the risk that office relationships will turn into workplace litigation:

Related: Do I Need a Sexual Harassment Policy? 

1. Don’t ask for sex.

Never ask directly for sex outside of a romantic relationship. You might be thinking that's a no-brainer.

I raise this because in one case a manager’s defense was “I asked politely.” Sorry, that doesn’t work. Because of the power imbalance, the request may be heard as a demand.

2. Understand that no means no.

If you ask someone for a date and that person says "no," never ask again and do not retaliate against that person in any way.

If you believe that your feelings might be hurt if you're rebuffed (and most people understandably take rejection personally), then don’t ask in the first place. If you retaliate by avoidance in another way, you could end up in legal hot water.

This holds true for supervisors and for peers.

A supervisor's attempt to date an employee over whom he or she has direct or indirect supervisory or other institutional authority is risky legally: An employee could file a harassment claim. 

Even if a subordinate says no and the supervisor does not ask again, any adverse action taken by the supervisor could be perceived by a subordinate as retaliatory.

And if the subordinate says yes and later the relationship falls apart, there could be fallout. 

Claims have been filed whereby a subordinate alleged he or she felt pressured to become involved or felt retaliated against when the romance ended. 

3. Say no if you mean no.

If someone asks you for a date and your answer is no, say no and don’t go. Try to avoid the "I wish I could but I have other plans." That is often heard as "ask me again."

You don’t need to go to the other extreme and say, "You repulse me sexually and I would rather die." Try being direct and respectful. Say something like "No. I want our relationship to remain strictly professional." This applies to anyone who is asked, especially subordinates.

4. Keep the loving private.

If you are romantically involved, keep the romance out of the workplace. Public displays of affection and using terms of endearment are not just inappropriate.

They also could be the basis for a sexual harassment claim: Too much loving could create an uncomfortable working environment. For example, see the 2005 case Miller v. the Department of Corrections. Before you read the case, note that it is R rated.

Related: How to Create an Effective Office Romance Policy

5. Watch out for dangerous liaisons. 

At a minimum, train leaders on the risks of dating or attempting to date subordinates. Managers may want to consider prohibiting individuals from supervising or having institutional authority over individuals with whom they are having intimate relationships. Or you may choose to end up in the middle and require a report. But whatever you do, don’t ignore the issue.

Sex in the workplace is often the elephant in the boardroom. Don’t assume everything will be fine. Yes, love happens. But so does hate. Consider spelling out for employees in general and your managers in particular the rules of the game. Talk about it and minimize the legal and business risks.

6. Don’t stop mentoring.

Be careful that an admonition on dating is not interpreted to mean discouraging opposite-sex mentoring. Make that clear in training. Dinner to discuss a project is not a date if it takes place at the right location and is framed appropriately.

Appropriate caution about dating situations should not be taken to the extreme where it results in a sex discrimination case. 

Make sure that your workplace doesn't set up a dynamic whereby some individuals say they were excluded because of their sex.

This post should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to specific factual situations.

Related: 3 Popular Culture Office Romances: Appropriate or Not?