Office Romance: New Rules Apply

PHOTO: Actress Jessica Parre as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the fifth season premiere of Mad Men.

Love is dangerous--as casualties Woody Allen, King Edward VIII and fictional philandering ad-man Don Draper could all attest. In the workplace, though, it is fraught with special peril.

That an office romance gone sour might unleash a hail of legal arrows (suits alleging sexual harassment or discrimination, say) seems not to impede cubicle-mates from hooking up.

In a survey of office workers just released by CareerBuilder, 39 percent say they have dated a co-worker at least once in their career. Of the ones who dated, 29 percent dated a higher-up; 16 percent dated their boss. Most workers said they had been open about these relationships, but 35 percent kept them secret.

Clarence Belnavis, a partner in the Portland, Ore., office of Fisher & Phillips, counsels clients on the dangers of office romance. It's no secret, he says, says why love is blooming in the office: It's where people spend most of their time, he tells ABC News. "You spend more time at work than you do sleeping. No wonder a good number of people find their significant others there."

Even so, he says, most employers don't know how to deal—or don't want to deal—with the legal issues raised by these relationships. "Very few deal with it in a pro-active fashion," he says.

There's nothing illegal about love in the office, provided it's consensual and not the result of intimidation or coercion.

Nor is it illegal for a lover to show favoritism at work toward his beloved. "Paramour favoritism" is the legal term for that, says Belnavis, and courts have found it to be neither harassment nor gender discrimination, for purposes of the Civil Rights Act.

The reason, says Belnavis, is that the favoritism shown to the paramour disadvantages all other employees equally, whether they are male or female. Further, according to The Legal Intelligencer, paramour favoritism does not run afoul of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, which permit isolated instances of preferential treatment based on consensual romantic relationships.

Favoritism shown a paramour may be unfair to other workers, the commission has ruled, but the unfairness is based on considerations other than the gender of the disadvantaged parties.

What makes consensual office love relationships problematic for employers, Belnavis says, is that consent can be withdrawn at any time.

"Today's consensual relationship," he says, "can be tomorrow's breakup disaster." Suddenly, one party's attentions are no longer welcome to the other. Put another way: "High school is alive and well in the workplace."

Despite the danger that the jilted lover will sue, alleging, say, that the relationship was coercive and that the employer allowed it to exist, Belnavis says most employers choose not to intervene in office romances. "They feel it's taboo for them to interfere in that aspect of employees' lives."

Michael Woolley, associate general counsel for trucking company C.R. England in Salt Lake City, Utah, tells the Wall St. Journal his company does not ban in-office relationships. But when and if management learns of that two employees are pitching woo, it calls a meeting with them, to discuss the situation.

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