E. Michelle Bohreer, chairman of the litigation group of Boyar & Miller in Houston, has two guidelines for employers seeking to dampen the flames of office infatuation:
• No. 1: Conduct regular sexual harassment training sessions and ask employees to sign statements that they are not the subject of sexual harassment, and that if they become a target they will immediately notify the company.
• No. 2: Once rumors are circulating around the office cooler about a particular couple, go the “love pact” route. “Say, ‘We know you’re having a relationship. Is this consensual or not?’ ”
Bohreer recently drew up documents for two such cases – one involving a computer consultant and an assistant, and another involving an oil services company’s controller and a secretary.
In both cases, the couples initially denied their relationships, but ultimately signed the affidavits.
While asking a couple in the throes of passion to sign such a statement is “incredibly awkward,” it’s a lot better than ending up the target of a sexual harassment claim, Bohreer said.
“You spend more time at the office then you spend anywhere else, so it is likely that you might develop a relationship at work,” she commented. “You understand how it can occur. But you have to step back from a corporate liability standpoint, and say ‘How do we minimize exposure?'”
The higher up you go in the corporate ranks, the bigger the risk of a lawsuit from a jilted employee-paramour. That’s why many companies have codes of conduct built into senior management employment contracts.
“It’s [a] post-Enron [reaction],” Bohreer said. “Senior management of publicly traded companies has a heightened awareness that every act they take and every document they write is going to be used against them.”
To discourage love-struck workers from sending electronic love letters to each other on company time, Glenn G. Patton, a partner in Alston & Bird’s labor and employment group in Atlanta, said many companies have electronic communications policies that restrict office computers, e-mails and telephones to business use only.
Unfortunately, he said, such policies are almost impossible to enforce.
“Most people use their work e-mail to tell their spouse where they’re meeting for dinner or what time the kids are going to school,” he said. “Where do you draw the line on what’s acceptable personal use? Really, there is no way to effectively police.”