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.


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.


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.


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.

  • Do nothing. For many smaller companies, this option proves to be the favorite. If you choose not to have a relationship policy, make sure your sexual harassment, retaliation, and discrimination policies are current.
  • Ban it. Otherwise known as an “anti-fraternization policy.” If you desire to implement such a policy, precise definitions and explanations of the prohibited conduct must be provided. The downside to these policies is that such policies encourage employees to hide and/or lie about their relationships.
  • Written disclosure. Employers may decide to allow relationships to flourish in the workplace, but request that employees notify the employer of the relationship by signing a “love contract.” In this situation, the employees acknowledge that their relationship is consensual, that they have received notice of sexual harassment policies, and that they understand what constitutes unacceptable behavior (i.e. public displays of affection). This contract may protect the employer if the relationship fails so that neither employee will blame the company. If this option is used, the employees should be advised that they may speak with an attorney before signing the contract.
  • Allow it, but not within the chain of command. Although this approach is more appealing to employees, the employer must still provide clear definitions of any prohibited relationships and conduct. As an alternative, if an employer does not want to fire an employee for a breach of this policy, the employer may consider a transfer or schedule change to accommodate the relationship.

  • Employees who are high ranking in the company (i.e. CEO, Vice President, etc.) should think twice before dating employees because the relationship may impact the company’s reputation. For example, Hewlett Packard’s former CEO Mark Hurd resigned after allegations of sexual harassment from an employee with whom he had a prior relationship. Shortly after Hurd’s resignation, Hewlett Packard’s shares plummeted over 8 percent.
  • Educate and train all employees about the policy and impacts for violation, and enforce the policy when violations are found.
  • Make sure that all anti-harassment, discrimination, and retaliation policies are current and that all employees are aware of their existence.
  • 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.