First comes love, then comes . . . lawsuits. Long working hours, close interaction with colleagues and occasional after-hours socializing encourage flirtations that often lead to serious relationships. While some office romances end happily, others might wind up in charges of favoritism, sexual harassment claims and decreased morale and productivity among co-workers.
One of the lovers in a workplace affair may be in the position to grant such employment perks as extra time off, overlooked mistakes or raises and promotions not offered to similarly qualified employees. Such preferential treatment affects the morale of co-workers when they get the picture that hard work and exceptional performance won’t take them as far as sleeping with the boss. Employees who were passed over could have a legitimate legal claim for discrimination if such behavior is widespread in the workplace, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment is what it’s called when a manager or supervisor gives some economic or other benefit to a subordinate in exchange for sexual favors. Harassment is also the case when a superior takes retaliatory action against an employee who refuses the boss’s advances. The EEOC guidelines spell out that when employment benefits are given because an employee has submitted to a superior’s sexual advances or requests, the employer could be liable for claims of illegal sex discrimination against other employees who were equally qualified but were passed over in favor of the boss’s lover.
Hostile Work Environment
A workplace can become a sexually hostile work environment when harassment becomes so severe that it “alters the conditions of employment.” Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual conduct that “has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.” While an individual act of favoritism isn’t forbidden, a pattern of behavior that shows upper-tier employees treating underlings as a personal harem could become the basis for a hostile work environment claim by affected co-workers.
Office lovers who are not discreet and behave inappropriately at work may make their co-workers uncomfortable. Office gossip wastes valuable work time and diminishes productivity. Tensions arise if the affair ends and the vindictive ex-lovers carry out their quarrels in the office. Co-workers are especially apt to feel uncomfortable if the lovers are married to others, and those spouses are not aware of the adulterous affair. Office lovers should keep their hands off each other, keep their email messages clean and keep their fights out of the office.
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