Workplace Romance: Proceed with caution

Workplace Romance: Proceed with caution

We can’t help who we fall in love with – and as many people will attest, it usually happens when we least expect it. For Whitney Elston-Lovely, it happened to be with one of the chefs at a diner where she worked as a waitress in high school.

“We were friends for a few months, and started secretly dating because we didn’t want it to be awkward at work,” said Elston-Lovely, 24, from Lewiston.

Elston-Lovely met her now-husband, Mike, in June 2007 when she started working at Kathy’s Diner in Mechanic Falls. But even before the two became co-workers, Elston-Lovely, 16 at the time, admits she developed a crush on Mike Lovely, then 23, when she and her family dined there on the weekends. Mike is now the manager of Kathy’s Diner.

“After a few months of flirting and spending time together at work, I think everyone started to know we both had a crush on each other,” she said.

At first, “Mike refused to go on a date with me,” she added.

Amy Sneirson, executive director for the Maine Human Rights Commission, said while a consensual romantic relationship between co-workers is not unlawful, legal issues can arise, especially when a company imposes a no-dating policy and co-workers ignore it.

“You can be fired,” she said, but “it’s not illegal” to date someone who you work with.

“They are some places that have no policies at all, and then there are other companies that are very specific, and have what are called non-fraternization policies – no romantic relationships between anyone who works there,” Sneirson said. “Some (companies) have an in-between (policy) that says no romantic relationships between employees and their supervisors.”

The annual survey by CareerBuilder, the online job-search site, regarding office romances found that nearly 40 percent of those employed in the U.S. have dated someone they worked with. Sixteen percent said they had done it more than once, according to the survey, conducted by marketing research firm Harris Interactive Inc. on behalf of CareerBuilder, from Nov. 6 to Dec. 2, 2013.

In addition, 24 percent of people who dated a co-worker said their significant other worked higher up in the company. Only 3 percent of workers represented in the survey, however, said the relationship helped them advance in their career.

Complaints the commission receives as a result of failed workplace relationships include colleagues taking sides or one person getting responsibilities taken away, Sneirson said.

“It’s particularly a problem when one of the people in the relationship was a supervisor and has the capability of affecting the other person’s pay, what their work duties are, etc.,” she said.

The commission also hears complaints where one person wants to be in a relationship, but the other person doesn’t.

Though it’s not always the case, the uninterested employee could file a sexual harassment complaint with the Human Rights Commission, Sneirson said. By law, a person has 300 days from the date the harassment happened to file a complaint with the commission.

“In the 2014 fiscal year, sex discrimination complaints represented 9.8 percent of claims filed here, with sexual harassment claims accounting for 53 percent of all sex discrimination complaints,” she wrote in an email to Maine Women. “The prior year sex harassment claims had been 41 percent of all sex discrimination claims filed with us.”

Then there’s the question of whether the complaint should be filed against the unwanted suitor or the employer, she said.

“An employee typically names their employer as the respondent in sex harassment cases, for failing to take prompt and effective action to stop the harassment,” Sneirson said. “An employee can also name an individual co-worker or supervisor for harassing them; the Maine Human Rights Act does allow for individual liability for interfering with a person’s rights under the law or retaliating against them.”

Regardless of specific policies about dating in the workplace, discrimination and sexual harassment are illegal at every place of employment, she said.

In general, there is no law that prohibits co-workers from having a consensual relationship, said Karen Bilodeau, an attorney and partner at the workers’ rights law firm McTeague Higbee in Topsham.

Bilodeau encourages people to check their company’s handbook to see whether it bans dating between co-workers. While some companies ban inter-work relationships altogether, others only ban relationships between employees and their supervisors.

In some cases, companies require both employees to sign a document agreeing their relationship is consensual.

“I think the worst, situation, frankly, is when it’s a manager or someone at the executive level that is having a relationship with a subordinate. Those types of situations are the most dangerous,” Bilodeau said.

A potential legal claim can arise between a company executive and another employee when the employee is given special treatment and the relationship fails, she said.

“Let’s say you’re the person that is denied the promotion,” said Bilodeau. “You have to prove that they only gave you a promotion because you were involved in a romantic relationship.”

Personally, she does not think that two people pursuing a relationship at work is inappropriate. She does think, however, that co-workers in love should conduct themselves in the manner they would if they were not dating.

Of the 38 percent of people surveyed by CareerBuilder, nearly one-third ended up marrying their co-worker. Contrastingly, only seven percent of those who dated a co-worker said they had to leave their jobs as a result of their office romance.

Bilodeau said, regardless, couples that work together should proceed with caution.

“Keep the relationship and the office separated as much as possible,” she said.

Owner and CEO of HR Studio Group in Falmouth, Deb Whitworth, agreed that relationships involving a supervisor and a lower-ranking employee pose the greatest risk.

“If that relationship goes sour, then the subordinate has the opportunity to say that either he or she was coerced into having this dating relationship, in order to keep their job,” she said.

Whitworth has worked as a human resources executive for one company that decided to put two employees in different departments after they broke up to avoid a potential sexual harassment case.

But “both employees were amenable to the situation. It was a win-win for everybody,” she said.

Some companies don’t allow co-workers from the same department to date for fear it would disrupt the work environment, she said.

“I don’t think many organizations these days absolutely forbid any kind of dating in the workplace,” said Whitworth. “I think it’s unrealistic, but an employer has to decide what makes the best sense for (its) culture and what it can do to make it an engaging work environment and provide employees with an enriching and productive work experience.”

Whitworth’s advice: “Always be professional. Be discreet. Nobody in the work environment should know you have a dating relationship with someone you work with. Act appropriately.”

After working with her husband for a few years, Elston-Lovely said they decided that she needed to pursue her own career.

“People thought I only had the job because my husband worked there,” she said.

Her workplace-romance advice? Try being friends for a while before seriously dating.

“We slowly eased people into it,” Elston-Lovely said.

The couple became friends in October 2007 and started officially dating that December, said Elston-Lovely, who is now a personal banker for Bank of America. But in the beginning, she said, the relationship didn’t go so smoothly.

“Mike and I took a break one summer and it was very uncomfortable for everyone that was working with us, including us,” said Elston-Lovely. “Mike’s family owns the restaurant and luckily we broke up on good terms, but they could have easily let me go.

“The biggest lesson (I learned) is making sure people you work with are comfortable with it and to think of any consequences if you were to break up. His dad didn’t want relationships at work and told Mike we couldn’t date, but we did anyway.”

The Lovelys, who have been married since 2009, now have their own careers they can be proud of, as well as two children, including a son, Brody, 4, and daughter Bailey, 2.

But there are also benefits to working with the person you love.

“We have learned how to be a team,” Elston-Lovely said. “Working together at the diner, we always helped each other and we have carried that into our home. It taught us how the other person takes criticism and how to communicate with each other.”

Whitney Elston-Lovely, 24, with her husband Mike Lovely, 31, and two children, Bailey, 2, and Brody, 4. The couple, from Lewiston, met while working at Kathy’s Diner in Mechanic Falls in 2007. Whitney Elston-Lovely is now a personal banker for Bank of America. Mike Lovely is the manager of Kathy’s Diner. Photo courtesy of Catz Photography

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