Fisher & Phillips – Clarence Belnavis – From Investors Business Daily – Valentine’s Day is a time for love, and love happens for coworkers just as it does for anyone else. People spend more time at work than anywhere else, so romances are bound to crop up. Rather than prohibit them or look the other way, set up rules of the road so people know what’s OK. Here’s how:
• Deal with it. Accept that relationships occur at work. Don’t try to prevent them. Govern them so problems don’t arise later. “People being people, there’s a lot of office romance,” Clarence Belnavis, an employment law attorney in the Portland, Ore., office of Fisher & Phillips, told IBD. “It’s like stopping people from breathing. You can’t prevent it. But you can manage it in an appropriate way to avoid problems later.”
• Get it out there. When two co-workers date, it’s vital for a firm to disclose the fact. “Then you can manage it,” said Di Ann Sanchez, who runs her own human resource consulting firm in Hurst, Texas.
• Make the rules. You need guidelines. Many employers say that they’ll treat people like adults and trust that everything will work out. Wrong move. “That’s a disaster, and it will get you sued,” Belnavis said. “If you don’t have a policy or plan in place, it means you’re reacting after the fact.”
• Be clear. Start with a policy that one co-worker in a romantic relationship can’t supervise the other. Lay out other rules prohibiting public displays of affection, retaliation and harassment.
Institute a “love contract” stating that the relationship is consensual and doesn’t affect either person’s work, Belnavis says. If the relationship ends and there’s an issue, the affected person will report the problem to human resources. “Get it in writing and, more important, enforce the policy that’s in place,” he said. “Hopefully you can handle any issues on the front end.”
• Be inclusive. Love contracts shouldn’t deal only with co-workers. Relationships with clients and vendors also should be disclosed, Sanchez said: “That’s where the majority of the dating is. It protects the company from potential sexual harassment claims.”
• Guard against trouble. Potential problems aren’t limited to the two who are dating. There’s the risk of creating a hostile work environment by calling each other pet names or describing how good the other one is in bed. “The contract says they are going to conduct themselves in a business manner at all times,” Sanchez said. “They are subject to discipline if other people become uncomfortable.”
• Set consequences. Enforce the policies that you have and don’t make exceptions, Belnavis says.
In one case, a male employee and a female co-worker dated and broke up. Years later, he became her boss. He had to sign off on a disciplinary matter involving her. She argued that he was retaliating against something in their dating life. He had never mentioned their dating to higher-ups; he was fired.
“Today’s bad relationship breakup can haunt you for decades to come,” Belnavis said.
• Educate. Train employees on sexual harassment, Sanchez says. A lot of misconceptions exist.
• Be consistent. Enforce the rules the same way for everyone. Make sure that all parties are heard when you investigate a problem.
• Take the tough steps. If two co-workers are married to other people and you suspect they’re involved in an affair, deal with it as you’d handle any other relationship. Have everyone sign a document stating that they understand the office policies. “If you have good, updated policies and you train people and enforce them,” said Belnavis, “then you should not have violations.”
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