Feel the Love Contract

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Have you ever been romantically involved with a co-worker? C’mon…be honest. Surveys show that 2 out of every 5 workers have been romantically involved with a colleague. Not a shocker because we spend so much time at work.

But by and large, employers aren’t thinking about the pluses of inter-office romances. Rather, they are worried about potential liability if and when the relationship goes sour. So, most employers tend to discourage office romances, while stopping short of forbidding them altogether.

From a legal perspective, most of these relationships probably do not present huge problems for employers or fellow employees. And some result in marriage, with bosses invited to the wedding. On the other hand, some office flings can result in a lawsuit.

After a break up between two co-workers, employers fear that one of the parties may claim that the relationship was never consensual. In addition, fellow employees may claim that preferential treatment was given to a co-worker who was involved with another co-worker.

Enter the “love contract,” (or, as I call it the “luuve contract”) which is supposed to curb the unpleasantness that results when a relationship between co-workers goes bad. The couple signs a contract saying that their relationship is consensual. It outlines appropriate office behavior and the contract may require that neither employee is in a position of reporting to the other. Sounds good, but will these contracts really do anything? I’m skeptical.

In a recent California case, a Department of Corrections Supervisor was having sex with three of his subordinates. They were all being given preferential treatment in the form of promotions, lack of supervision and lax job duties. The women who were not involved with the Supervisor soon came to believe that the only way to climb the corporate ladder was to climb into bed with him, so they sued claiming sexual harassment.

The drama that resulted was right out of a day time soap opera. One of the plaintiffs was physically assaulted and held hostage in her office for two hours by one of the women the Supervisor was sleeping with. In addition, the Supervisor was seen openly fondling one of the women on at least three separate occasions at work-related social gatherings. He was also with one of the women when she was arrested for DUI. And the women in the “relationship” bragged to others about how they could get whatever they wanted out of him, even squabbling over him in public.

Would a love contract have prevented any of this? I suppose the supervisor could have signed 3 love contracts then the women could have been transferred to other departments, but that probably was not feasible and in this case one of the women was not a subordinate. In addition, the contract would have prohibited the inappropriate behavior like the groping. But isn’t groping always a no-no at work functions? What is unique about the California case is that the charges were not brought by any of the three women, but by other employees who were not the subject of any sexual advances. The fact that the plaintiffs were not being harassed directly was irrelevant according to the Court which said, "when sexual favoritism in a workplace is sufficiently widespread, it may create an actionable hostile work environment in which the demeaning message is conveyed to female employees that they are viewed by management as 'sexual playthings' or that the way required for women to get ahead in the workplace is by engaging in sexual conduct with their supervisors or the management."

And I’m not quite sure who would sign one of these contracts. And when would these contracts be signed? First date, second date, after the couple has slept together or when they meet the parents? Also, keep in mind that many office affairs are just that, affairs. If two people are married and cheating on their spouses they are not likely to sign a love contract. What about gay or lesbian couples? Such relationships are still considered taboo in some workplace environments, and signing a love contract could result in a very hostile work environment.

For employers choosing to implement a love contract policy, attorney Marilyn Sneirson advises that the policy should be incorporated into the employee handbook and be "widely disseminated" in the workplace through e-mail and/or a memo announcing the policy, and perhaps even a meeting explaining the policy and why the company is adopting it. Sneirson also recommends discussing the policy in anti-harassment training programs.

Personally, I think these contracts are simply unworkable and unrealistic. Employees will feel compelled to sign them — fearing they may lose their job if they do not comply. In addition, the terms of a love contract may constitute an invasion of privacy. In some states, such as California, privacy laws restrict an employer's ability to regulate employee relationships unless a conflict of interest is involved.

Nonetheless, companies are implementing love contracts and the fact that a recent online poll of 800 respondents revealed that 72 percent of men and 60 percent of women were infatuated with a co-worker suggests that the employer’s concern is warranted. But whether or not these contracts will actually do anything…well, the jury’s out on that one.


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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.