5 ways to keep your office romance legal

Relationships, Business, Money

After just a few dates in August 2015, New York City securities broker Jason Schwartz says he knew his romance with a co-worker was more than just a summer fling. But he was torn about how to proceed.

“I’d dated co-workers before, and things were generally kosher,” the 33-year-old said. “But I also had a rough experience in my first job out of college with an interoffice relationship that ended badly. And when the relationship ended, it literally created a scenario where we couldn’t function as co-workers. It wasn’t healthy for us or the employer, and while I felt good about my prospects (in the new relationship), I didn’t want to risk that scenario again.”

Putting it in writing

In the spirit of full disclosure—and in compliance with their major brokerage firm’s policy—Schwartz and his girlfriend approached the company’s human resources department to talk about their options. “My girlfriend is technically my superior, even though she’s in another department,” he explained. “But our projects do occasionally overlap, so we wanted to make sure there would be no professional conflicts, no matter the state of our relationship.”

The couple’s firm presented them with the latest twist in interoffice pairings: the option to sign a company “love contract.” A legal document signed in-house, the contract stipulates that the couple’s amorous relationship will not lead to workplace distractions or conflicts of interest. Many such contracts also specify information that the two parties wish to keep confidential. In addition, a love contract rehashes the company’s sexual harassment policy, limiting employer liability should the liaison end while the two parties remain at the firm.

It’s a practical approach to interoffice romance, but also a way to minimize confusion—a survey from CareerBuilder conducted in 2016 showed that over two in five employees don’t even know if their company has a dating policy in place. So providing specifics for employees in the form of a document that is explicitly designed to address interoffice romances is a welcome dose of transparency.

Schwartz—who proposed to his girlfriend this spring and plans to wed next year—said he and his now-fiancée didn’t hesitate to sign their company’s love contract, and urges others contemplating interoffice romance to ensure their own workplace has similar policies in place.

“There’s no real way to hide being in love from your co-workers, so it’s safer to be transparent and talk about your options,” he said. “For us, it was also a good reminder that in the office, we’re professionals, and to not let the relationship affect our work ethic. I think it’s made us better partners both in the office and out.”

Schwartz and his girlfriend are far from outliers among today’s millennial workforce, some 84 percent of whom say they’re open to dating to a co-worker. But despite such widespread acceptance, not every workplace hook-up will end so happily. Here are five tips for avoiding a messy office affair, and the legal woes that often accompany one:

1) Do not date a married colleague

As you may have heard, having an affair with a married person is almost never a good idea. The seismic fallout on others—including spouses, children, and friends in common—is cataclysmic, as is the legal backlash. But it’s an even worse idea in the office, as you are now potentially embroiling your emails and phone records in the files of divorce attorneys. Breaking up under the watch of superiors and coworkers is hard enough, but when it involves a married person, the scrutiny is even more unforgiving.

2) Avoid dating a boss or subordinate

According to a 2014 survey by Vault.com, 20 percent of women have dated a supervisor while 25 percent of men have hooked up with a subordinate. This is risky business—literally—for any romance. Few companies encourage (or allow) superior-direct report relationships, as they destabilize office dynamics and make coworkers wary of favoritism. Fearing the possibility of sexual harassment claims or other lawsuits, even after a relationship has ended, many companies reassign one or both parties within the company or ask them to leave altogether.

3) Beware of injudicious emailing

Never, as a rule, send romantic or sexually explicit emails from the office. At most companies, hitting “send” legally provides your assent to having your email read by anyone in the company IT department. And woe betide the worker who inadvertently fires off a romantic missive to the boss or the client—rather than the crush—from the company address book. For less exposure when communicating with your SO, always use your personal email address, such as Gmail or Yahoo. Better still, sit down and pen an old-fashioned love letter, preferably with instructions to burn after reading.

4) Mind your social feeds

Between Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, and Facebook, the line between public and private is increasingly blurred. Tonight’s raucous exploits can become tomorrow morning’s water-cooler gossip in a hot second. Bear in mind that anything posted on a social networking site—say, pictures of you and your love interest, who’s also your colleague—are also viewable by your boss and coworkers, and can legally be used against you by your HR department. Make sure it’s the public image you want to present.

5) Focus on the task at hand

You are at work to do a job. As tempting as it is, abstain from daydreaming about your crush, your next exciting date, or your wedding stationery. Slipping into the supply closet for a 20-minute make-out session just isn’t very professional. Keep in mind that time spent flirting is time you could have spent polishing a report or following up with a client. Don’t let your amorous musings give your boss a reason to hand you a pink slip.