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The Ever Expanding Risks of Office Romance

Published:  November 14, 2017

Most employers have long recognized the risks associated with romantic relationships in the office. Office relationships, particularly the dissolution of office relationships, can lead to sexual harassment claims, retaliation claims, and/or an uncomfortable working environment. These problems are most common where the relationship existed between a supervisor and a subordinate or where a relationship ends acrimoniously. Some employers specifically bar such relationships, while others try to insulate themselves by having the parties sign waivers. Additionally, claims can arise from inappropriate behavior between the parties during the relationship.

Many employers are hesitant to become too involved in their employee’s personal lives. This instinct is wise in many regards. However, this instinct also causes some employers to have a laissez-faire attitude towards office romances, particularly while the relationship is going well, the participants are acting appropriately at work, and there hasn’t been any indication of favoritism. This approach allows for potential exposure even in this best case scenario.

The laissez-faire attitude leaves employers vulnerable to complaints from third-parties.  The issue is that third-party individuals that are not involved in the romance can have valid retaliation claims, even if the office romance does not result in actionable discrimination or a hostile work environment.  

Recently, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued an order that highlighted this risk. In Downing v. Omnicare, Inc. (2017), the Court reaffirmed past decisions highlighting that an employee’s retaliation claim can be valid even if there was no underlying unlawful conduct.

At the outset, it should be noted that a hostile work environment discrimination claim filed by an individual that was not a party to the office relationship, will almost always necessitate an assessment of disputed facts regarding whether the conduct rose to the level of a hostile work environment. However, where the facts are not in dispute, the question may simply come down to whether the undisputed facts are sufficient to establish a hostile work environment. If there was no inappropriate or offensive conduct in the workplace, the claim should fail.  Additionally, “paramour favoritism” is not necessarily discriminatory. In Ritchie v. Department of State Police (2004), the Appeals Court of Massachusetts ruled that such favoritism could rise to the level of sexually hostile environment, but that, while unfair and unprofessional, a supervisor could show such favoritism that would not necessarily rise to the level of actionable hostile work environment.  Even if all of this is true, the employer is not necessarily off the hook.

In Downing, the District Court ruled that, even where there was not an actual hostile work environment or other forms of discrimination, a retaliation claim could survive, provided that the plaintiff had a good faith belief that the conduct was unlawful.  Even more troubling, the District Court stated that a retaliation claim could go forward even if the relationship didn’t actually exist at all, provided that the individual had a reasonable, good faith belief that it did.

The biggest lesson here is that employers need to be increasingly cautious about the risks presented by office romance. This is particularly true where one may arise in a supervisor-subordinate context.  Most importantly, employers need to take all complaints about possible sexual harassment, hostile work environments, unfair favoritism and other possible areas of discrimination seriously.  The out-of-hand dismissal of even far-fetched claims can create serious liability. Employers should also remain vigilant for any actions that could be considered retaliatory.

If you have any questions about employment law please contact the attorneys at Royal, P.C.

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