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An office romance could cost you your job if you happen to work for the Putnam County Sheriff's office in Tennessee. But is this new policy legal?
Several employees at the Sheriff's office are already in relationships that are now in violation of the new policy. Those employees may challenge the policy in court, according to Herald Citizen. But in a statement, Sheriff's Chief Deputy Jacky Farley said he believes the policy is legally acceptable.
It's possible that Farley is correct, but banning office romance doesn't stop the real problem.
Attempting to ban office romances isn't an effective strategy and it leaves employers open to liability. When office romances go bad, the rejected party may raise a sexual harassment claim against their former partner, according to the HR Specialist.
This is not meant to minimize the reality of sexual harassment in the work place. It's a serious issue and affected parties should seek counsel.
But it is possible that a soured relationship could end up in litigation. If that happens, employers may be liable for failing to investigate and stop harassment. Employers can also be liable for not curbing amorous relationships that make other employees uncomfortable under the hostile work environment doctrine.
The Putnam County Sheriff's response to potential inter-employee relationships is probably intended to curb the creation of an overly sexualized workplace. But it doesn't provide any protection to the employer if failed relationships lead to harassment suits.
The better option for employers is to make sure that employees who are involved in relationships sign some form of "love contract." This opinion comes from a Wall Street Journal interview with an employment litigator, but love contracts aren't a new idea. NBC's "The Office" even did an episode where Pam and Jim had to ask HR rep Toby about the company's policy on office romances.
A love contract makes it easier to ensure that a relationship between employees is voluntary and can be important for defending a lawsuit. It also provides an opportunity to remind employees of harassment policies and appropriate work behavior.
The Putnam County Sheriff's office romance policy is intended to decrease workplace conflict, but it also raises the risk of employer liability. Addressing the issue head on provides an opportunity for employers to set a standard for appropriate work conduct and protect themselves from liability. Plus, it might make for a few more weddings to celebrate.