Sexual Harassment Charges Cost Employers More Than $208 Million in the Last Five Years
Cupid’s arrow often strikes at work, and while inner-office dating may seem like a good idea in the beginning, employers may be left picking up the pieces when hearts get broken and sexual harassment or discrimination claims are filed. In fact, sexual harassment charges cost U.S. employers more than $208 million in the last five years, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to Mauro Ramirez, attorney in the Houston office of management-side labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips, employers need to be aware of the top five areas that if ignored, can land an employer in court when office romance turns sour.
“Office relationships have become commonplace with more than half of the business professionals surveyed by Vault.com a couple of years ago admitting to taking part in an office romance,” said Ramirez. “This can result in significant repercussions for employers, and they need to be prepared to respond when cupid’s arrow strikes their employees.”
Top five ways office romances can land employers with a date in court:
- Wearing rose-colored glasses. Employers who choose to only see what they want and look the other way when office romances bloom are likely subjecting themselves to potential sexual harassment claims. Employers must acknowledge the potential for inter-office relationships and establish and enforce policies on relationships between coworkers.
- Forgetting the importance of boundaries. Office dating policies, like any good relationship, need boundaries. If employers wish to allow office relationships, as banning them hurt morale, they should set limits. Employers should consider prohibiting relationships between supervisors and employees. Even if the feelings are mutual in the beginning, if things take a turn for the worst, employees may file sexual harassment complaints and claim they felt pressured to continue their relationship with their superior in fear of negative repercussions. In addition, employers should consider prohibiting public displays of affection in the workplace, as it may cause other employees discomfort.
- Supporting the “don’t kiss and tell” mentality. Employers should establish procedures for reporting sexual harassment. There should be more than one point of contact designated to handle such complaints. In addition, employers should convey an open door policy to employees to ensure they are comfortable reporting claims of sexual harassment. It is far better for employers to find out about claims internally, before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sends an investigator to the office.
- Blowing off complaints. Employers must take all claims of sexual harassment seriously. It does not matter whether they do not believe the source to be credible, or if they believe the accused could never do such a thing. An internal investigation should be conducted any time a complaint is filed.
- Playing favorites. All policies governing inter-office dating should be equally enforced. If, for example, you have a policy prohibiting supervisors from dating other employees and your highest performing supervisor begins dating his subordinate, you must take the same disciplinary action against him as you would any other supervisor. In addition to a potential sexual harassment lawsuit, playing favorites could result in a discrimination claim if the favorite employee is of a different gender, race or religion than other supervisors who were punished for the same conduct.
Though love may be sweet in the beginning, it can turn bitter quickly. If employers do not implement policies governing office romance, an employee’s broken heart may end up breaking an employer’s bank.