In rare instances, says Woolley, the company will draft a so-called "love contract" stipulating that the relationship is consensual, and setting ground rules for the couple's behavior in the workplace. One reason love contracts are rare, he says, is that the necessary negotiations can make for awkward conversations between manager and employees.
Belnavis says he has been recommending love contracts to his clients since 2001.
He calls them useful tools for establishing the ground rules and boundaries for an office romance. If love goes sour and charges of harassment start to fly, they offer some measure of protection for management, who can cite them as proof that the relationship was consensual and that management sat the couple down and explained what standard of behavior was expected of them.
A well-drafted love contract, says Belnavis, might include some or all of the following elements: acknowledgement by the parties that a relationship exists; that it is not based on intimidation; that the employees understand the company's policies on sexual harassment and discrimination; and that they commit to keeping management informed of any changes in their relationship. It might also include a commitment not to engage in retaliation, should the romance end.
"Love contract" is a bit of a misnomer, says Belnavis, noting that nothing is bought or sold. "It's more what I would call a relationship-acknowledgement form."
He emphasizes that the document, while useful, is not a cure for relationships that are wrong by definition—a romance between a manager and an immediate subordinate, say.
How should office lovebirds who are peers comport themselves, to avoid trouble?
Rachel DeAlto, a self-described flirting and communications expert, is author of "Flirt Fearlessly," an A to Z guide to fraternization. Her list of do's and don'ts for office sweethearts, published in The Advertiser of Lake City, Fla., includes the following:
Find out what policy, if any, your office has about workplace romance: If your company forbids it, don't do it. Or, alternatively, resign: If you've found the love of your life, keep your paramour and find a job somewhere else.
If company policy permits romance but requires that you notify HR of your relationship, report it at its earliest stage.
Respect decorum: If romance is permitted, have the good taste not to rub yours in co-workers' faces. "Making out at the Christmas party or causing your colleagues to feel uncomfortable with your public displays of affection," advises DeAlto, "is never cute. Keep all outward shows of affection for outside the office."
Likewise, keep all love-problems at home. Don't allow them to taint your professional life or those of co-workers.