February—the month of love—typically includes the exchange of Hallmark cards and chocolates with your special someone on Valentine’s Day. Yet, with Valentine’s Day approaching, many employers dread this celebration of love because Cupid’s arrow may hit their workplace.
WHY WORKPLACE RELATIONSHIPS MAY BRING LIABILITY
A relationship between employees in the workplace does not necessarily mean that a lawsuit will arise, but employee relationships may increase the employer’s potential for liability. If a workplace romance sours, the possibility for liability soars because one of the employees could claim sexual harassment, retaliation, or that the relationship was non-consensual. Likewise, if the relationship was between a supervisor and a subordinate, then other subordinate co-workers may claim nepotism or discrimination because of that workplace relationship.
PATTERSON v. STATE OF IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND WELFARE
A recent example of the impacts a relationship can have on the workforce is illustrated in Patterson v. State of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. A supervisor was engaged in a romantic relationship with another employee, despite the employer’s policy discouraging intra-office relationships. Another employee, Patterson, alleged that because of this relationship she was treated unfairly. Patterson reported the relationship to the HR specialist. Patterson then alleged that because she complained about the relationship she was retaliated against when she received negative performance reviews by this supervisor. Although the Idaho Supreme Court found insufficient evidence to support Patterson’s allegations, employers should take note that workplace romances can have detrimental legal effects that extend beyond the boundaries of the relationship.
WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO?
According to recent surveys, 85% of employees ages 18-29 and 35% of employees ages 30-46 have engaged in a relationship with another co-worker. Due to the magnitude of workplace relationships, employers can choose to work with these relationships, or they can choose to fight it.
INSIGHTS FOR EMPLOYERS
Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.