Vanderpump Rules chronicles the life and times of the extremely attractive employees at former Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump’s highly successful restaurants throughout greater Los Angeles. Bravo fans were shocked when reports recently surfaced that the mustachioed Tom Sandoval, co-owner of TomTom, was cheating (gasp!) on his longtime girlfriend, SUR Restaurant & Lounge employee and cast mate, Ariana Madix. Not only is Tom cheating, he is doing it with costar and coworker, Raquel Levvis. And all of this came out just as a new season dropped. Oh, the drama (and increased ratings)!
Of course, a scandal like this makes for fantastic reality TV. But an employer’s reality when coworkers date (or, in this case end up in a love triangle with the boss) isn’t such a delight. What might start as a lovely romance between two consenting adults can quickly dissolve into a workplace soap opera. Not only do workplace relationships carry inherent drama (which is great for those Bravo ratings, but bad for business and productivity), they increase the risk of sexual harassment claims against the employer, and often lead to accusations of favoritism, poor employee morale and even workplace violence, especially where one of those adults is also the boss.
So what can you as an employer do to protect itself? The answer depends on the working relationship between the couple.
Managers (and especially the business owner!) should never date a subordinate (no less two…at the same time). Employers are generally held strictly liable for quid pro quo sexual harassment because (owners) supervisors, managers and agents act directly on behalf of their employer. If a manager is dating a subordinate, you should reassign the subordinate to a new manager, without any change in pay or position. Sometimes that is impossible (such as, for example, when it is the owner dating an employee, or in the case of Tom, two). In those cases, you should ask one of the employees (preferably the manager) to resign. But even that is sometimes not practicable. In those situations, a “Love Contract” sometimes works. In a Love Contract, the couple states they are engaged in a consensual relationship, an outline is made what the couple should do if the relationship ever ends or stops being consensual, and the couple affirms they are aware of the company’s policies on sexual harassment and workplace ethics and understand the consequences of failure to follow those policies. It is not a perfect solution, but offers some evidence that no sexual harassment occurred, at least as of the date the agreement is signed.
Coworkers without a reporting relationship are different. While you may want to schedule them on different shifts, the most important thing is to remind them in writing that sexual harassment is illegal, and provide them a copy the company’s sexual harassment policy. Remind them that work time is for work, their personal life should take place on their personal time and that they should not engage in public displays of affection while at work. Violations are like any other violation of any other work rule. Managers should keep an eye and ear out (a “Watch What’s Happening Live,” if you will) for any issues the relationship may be causing with co-workers and address them promptly with HR.
Let Tom’s situation also be a reminder to review and update sexual harassment policies. Reality TV reminds us of the current times. Any sexual harassment policy that does not mention IMs, text messages, social media, email and the plethora of other electronic ways in which people communicate (and act badly) today needs some updating. If you haven’t conducted sexual harassment training since the pandemic, now is the perfect time. That way employees can be clear on what is and what is not acceptable conduct in the workplace.
Most importantly, don’t be like Tom – model the way in which you want your coworkers to interact together.
Most of us spend more of our adult with coworkers than our own family and friends. People are people, so workplace romances are inevitable. But workplace romances do not have to lead to the drama worthy of a reunion special if you take some time to properly manage the situation.
Source: FordHarrison LLP – Johanna G. Zelman and Rachel Ziolkowski Ullrich