When Love Is “On The Air” At Work

I am following avidly the plight of ABC News co-anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach whose recently discovered romantic involvement led their employer to temporarily suspend them.

According to this New York Times article, neither employee informed their boss about their relationship.

Neither employee violated the law. Whether they violated company policy is unknown (ABC isn’t talking).

Holmes and Robach’s boss, the president of ABC news, suspended them because they “had become a distraction.” After all, it’s tough to report the news when you are the news.

How Common Is Workplace Romance, Anyway?

Really common, it turns out. According to a 2022 Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) survey, 33% of a few hundred U.S. workers are involved or have been involved in a workplace romance, and 50% of workers admitted to crushing on coworkers.

Let’s look at some more stats from this survey:

  • More than 25% began a new workplace romance during the COVID-19 pandemic or continued an existing workplace romance that began prior to the pandemic;
  • 65% who are in or have been involved in a workplace romance dated their peers, while 12% dated their subordinates, and 19% dated their superiors; and
  • 28% have or had someone they consider their “work spouse,” and of these, 26% have felt romantic feelings toward this individual.

It makes sense when you consider how much time employees spend at work. And, in many industries, people present their best selves at work sparking admiration, cooperation, and other feel-good emotions that may get lost at home between partners when regular conversation includes whose turn it is to take out the trash, fold laundry, and wash dishes.

Hey, I’m just saying.

But back to Robach and Holmes.

The ABC News Anchors Did Not Disclose Their Relationship To Their Employer

Non-employment lawyers may wonder why disclosure is relevant.

I mean, what employees do on their own time and with whom is their own business, right?

Well, sometimes.

And sometimes it is important for an employer to know if a romantic or sexual relationship develops between two employees.

Image by 5688709 from Pixabay

What About a Policy?

Employers may want to have some kind of workplace policy concerning workplace romances — either in an employee handbook or elsewhere — to set some guidelines to mitigate risk if (when?) the relationship sours. (I know, I’m a cynic!)

I have no idea whether ABC News had a non-fraternization policy or workplace romance disclosure policy, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this employer could not have been happy to learn about its co-anchors’ relationship from the internet when another media outlet published secret photos of them looking cozy.

Requiring disclosure to HR makes sense, but disciplining or terminating employees for nondisclosure may seem farfetched and could violate off-duty conduct laws in states that carry such statutes. It’s kind of a minefield.

Now, if the lovebird employees involved have a direct reporting relationship, that could pose a problem for several reasons.

First, a workplace romance between a superior and subordinate could negatively affect both parties’ authority, credibility, and reputation. Employees get distracted and less focused on work. The superior may appear to favor the employee they are dating or with whom they are in a relationship.

Second, romantic relationships at work may increase the potential for sexual harassment. While there’s nothing illegal about a consensual personal relationship that begins at work, if the relationship ends and one party relentlessly pursues the other to resume the relationship (even after repeatedly being told “no”) or attempts to sabotage their previously beloved’s work or position at the company, that could result in quite the lawsuit.

Third, there is the “love contract” or consensual relationship agreement or whatever label an employer slaps on a written document regarding the consensual nature of the relationship, requiring both workers to review the company’s anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies, requiring workers to acknowledge that their romance will not negatively impact their job performance, and affirm that the relationship is voluntary on both parts.

Look, as a lawyer, I love an agreement. However, such a contract often mandates a level of transparency and open communication that many employees may not have with their Human Resources Department.

Further, whether a love contract is enforceable or not is up for grabs.

Employers, It’s Important to Have A Policy

From a legal perspective, if the relationship fails, I worry most about unwelcome, unwanted conduct by the brokenhearted employee, which may create a hostile work environment. And, if the lovers have even a dotted reporting line, concerns about retaliation may arise.

From a business perspective, I’m concerned mostly about two employees engaged in a romantic and/or sexual relationship focusing on their jobs and acting professionally at work.

Regardless of your particular focus, a written policy is probably a good idea. In addition, employment policies should emphasize respect, appropriate behavior in the workplace, and prohibit retaliation. Employers should maintain a clear anti-sexual harassment policy, replete with examples that include prohibitions of sex-based comments and unwelcome conduct like persisting on pursuing an employee who has already rejected the pursuer’s advances.

I’ll leave you with this gem:

Roses are red

Violets are blue

Do you have a policy addressing workplace romances?

or are you just waiting to get sued?

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.