Should I Sign My Employer's "Love Contract"?

Your employer can't make you sign a "love contract", but your job might be at risk if you refuse.

Question

I work for a large company, with several offices in the same county. Several months ago, I began dating someone who manages a different office. I don't report to him, and he doesn't usually get involved in personnel matters at my office. However, he is still a company manager and higher than me on the corporate ladder. After seeing us together at a company function, the HR manager asked us to sign a "love contract," saying that our relationship is consensual. Isn't this an invasion of our privacy? What possible interest does the company have in our relationship? Do I have to sign the contract?

Answer

Believe it or not, your company does have a legitimate interest in your relationship, for a couple of reasons. First, even though you don't directly report to your partner, he might be in a position to treat you favorably in the company. Whether he acts on this or not, coworkers might be watching to see whether you seem to be benefiting from your office romance. Any sign of workplace favoritism towards a romantic partner can quickly sour company morale and lead to complaints.

Second, your company is likely trying to head off claims of sexual harassment. Of course, a mutual romantic relationship is very different from sexual harassment: unwelcome sexual conduct that creates a hostile working environment or conditions workplace benefits on submitting to sexual advances. However, some relationships that begin as welcome and consensual can change over time, particularly once the relationship ends. More than one employer has found itself on the receiving end of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by an employee whose former romantic partner just won't let the relationship go. Especially if one partner is in a position to make things tough on the other -- as is the case when a manager dates a subordinate -- the difficult emotions that often accompany a break-up can quickly turn into a workplace problem.

Some employers try to prevent this kind of trouble with policies that prohibit fraternization. The trouble with these policies is that they are difficult to enforce. Surveys show that most of us have had at least one relationship that started at work. Rather than trying to police this natural human behavior, some employers try to put some limits on it by, for example, forbidding dating between managers and their direct subordinates, or by requiring managers to notify the company if they start dating a coworker. The company can then decide whether it needs to change reporting relationships or transfer one of the partners, for example.

In the last five years or so, some companies have gone further by requiring romantic partners to sign "love contracts": written agreements that the relationship between the two employees is consensual and welcome. Typically, these contracts ask the employees to agree that they are aware of the company's policies on sexual harassment and romantic relationships among employees, and that their relationship is consensual and not harassing. The contract might also require the employees to immediately inform the company if the relationship ends or becomes harassing.

While this might feel like an intrusion into your private life, the company does have a genuine interest in protecting itself from sexual harassment claims. If the company started asking you about your bedroom habits or other truly personal matters, that likely would be an invasion of privacy. In this case, however, you are bringing your personal life to work, and the company does have some rights. The law tries to balance these interests. For example, even in states that prohibit employers from discriminating based on an employee's marital status, the law typically makes an exception and allows employers to prohibit one spouse from managing the other. The employer's interest in preventing favoritism and maintaining a professional work atmosphere trumps the employees' rights to privacy and fraternization.

Your employer can't make you sign the contract. If you work at will, however, your job might be at risk if you refuse. The company may also have to consider some reporting changes if you are unwilling to sign the contract, to make sure that your partner isn't in a position to benefit your career.

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