Originally created 03/01/05

Dating co-workers is risky business



Love can hurt the heart. But when it invades the office, it can hurt the bottom line, too.

Office romance is heating up as more workers focus their time and energy on their jobs and little else. But when love turns sour, sexual harassment suits often follow.

According to a recent survey by Vault.com, a Web site devoted to career information, 47 percent of workers have been involved in an office romance, and an additional 19 percent said they would be willing to.

Intraoffice dating has become more prevalent in recent years because the office is an easy place to meet members of the opposite sex, and co-workers have a common bond to talk about, said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a leading outplacement firm. Also, people are participating less in civic organizations, churches and other extra-curricular activities, limiting their range of friends.

"People's lives are so centered today around their work, to a degree that was unthinkable a generation ago," he said. "When they go home, they go home alone."

But when love fades, as it often does, it can have dire consequences for a company's bottom line. A bad breakup can result in jealousy and hostility among employees and reduce productivity.

Even worse, though, is the potential for a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Mary Campbell, a human resource manager at Walton Rehabilitation Hospital, said she has had to deal with several sexual harassment claims at previous employers that stemmed from unsuccessful office romances.

One of her more memorable incidents involved the breakup of a couple who had been dating for a year and a half.

"I don't know if it met the legal definition of stalking, but he would wait outside her home," she said, adding that he would question her co-workers about where she was and what she was doing. Ms. Campbell said he was ultimately fired.

Jonathan Martin, an employment attorney with Constangy, Brooks & Smith in Macon, said that in his experience, eight of 10 sexual harassment lawsuits have begun with a person asking a co-worker out on a date.

Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers can be held liable if sexual harassment occurs and they did little to prevent it.

"When it crosses over into the workplace, you have certain obligations to that employee to protect them," Ms. Campbell said.

Mr. Martin, who was in town last week speaking to the Augusta-area chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, said sexual harassment lawsuits can cost as much as $80,000 in lawyer fees without ever going to trial.

"Although a significant amount of sexual harassment lawsuits are dismissed, it costs an incredible amount of money," Mr. Martin said.

U.S. employers paid $37.1 million in 2004 to settle sexual harassment claims, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports.

Despite the potential costs, few employers forbid office love.

According to a 2003 survey by the American Management Association, 84 percent of workers polled said their company did not have a written policy regarding employee dating.

Mr. Martin said many sexual harassment lawsuits can be prevented by creating a policy on office dating and keeping employees aware of the company's sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.

Workplace Romance

Dating a co-worker? Here are some tips on handling the situation:

 •  Keep the relationship private.

 •  Avoid physical contact in the office.

 •  Send flowers or gifts to his or her home.

 •  Don't send each other explicit e-mails or messages. Many companies monitor their employees' e-mail accounts.

 •  Relationships between bosses and subordinates should be avoided.

 •  Act and dress professionally at all business functions.

 •  If the relationship fails, don't let your personal feelings affect the office environment.

Source: Barbara Pachter, author of The Power of Positive Confrontation.