Employers are often quick to discourage office romances. One reason could be an attempt to avoid the precarious position of the employer and employees if the couple brings their relationship woes to the office or if the relationship does not last. Or worse, what if the relationship becomes violent? If you turn on the TV or scroll through social media, you will probably see at least one story related to domestic violence or sexual harassment. So, what happens if it’s the romantic relationship in your office?
In many cases, companies have policies where employees must disclose inter-office relationships. If you have been involved in a domestic violence incident with a co-worker, one of the first steps you should take is to inform Human Resources. Human Resource departments should be involved in any situations where employees are dating one another, especially when violence or threatening behavior occurs in the workplace. In addition, human resource professionals can provide information to employees and help protect both the employees and employer in the event an office romance turns sour.
In North Carolina, if an intimate partner becomes violent, the victim may seek a Domestic Violence Protective Order. A protective order can include various safeguards, such as prohibiting the abuser from having contact with the victim, threatening the victim’s family and coming to the victim’s workplace. In order to seek this relief, the victim must have shared at least one of several relationships, defined by North Carolina’s domestic violence statute, with the abuser. The obstacle unmarried same-sex couples can face is that, unless the couple lived together, they will not meet the definition of “dating relationship,” which applies only to dating partners of the opposite sex. This is especially troubling because, as research¹ shows, the LGBTQ community is affected by domestic violence at equal, or even higher, rates than the heterosexual community.
If a victim is granted a protective order against his or her colleague-turned-abuser, an employer will be forced to take action to ensure compliance with the terms of the order in order to protect the employer and the victim. For example, if the abuser is ordered to stay away from the victim, the employer will have to decide whether it is even possible to continue to employ the abuser and, if so, how to do so within the confines of the protective order. Can they still park in the same parking garage? Work on the same floor of the building? Attend the same staff meeting? Depending on how strict the terms of the protective order are, the employer may find it impossible to continue to employ both parties. Employers, when they put their employees in situations with prior court-determined knowledge of harassment and/or violence, may be exposed to tremendous liability if any further action occurs.
Even if a victim cannot seek relief under the domestic violence statute, the employer may be able to afford the victim protection from the abuser and, to avoid liability, an employer should take such precautions to reduce the risk of violence in the workplace. An employee who is experiencing abuse — whether at the hands of another employee or other third party — should inform the employer of the situation, particularly of potential risks. This gives the employer an opportunity to take steps to protect itself, its employees, its customers and the victim. An employer cannot guard against a risk of which it is not made aware. If an employer is made aware of an employee’s violent relationship, preventative measures should be implemented. Most often, those measures can include relocation, suspension or termination of the abusive employee. If the abuser comes to the place of work, a plan should be in place to remove the abuser before the situation escalates. If necessary, law enforcement should be called to advise the abuser not to return to the premises — regardless of whether a protective order is in place. The North Carolina Workplace Violence Prevention Act² protects the employer and its employees from any attempts or threats of bodily harm and harassment of employees.
When domestic violence occurs, no one is safe — the ripple effect of violence in the workplace often reaches all the way to the employer as well. But, employers are not without protection. If colleagues, even a supervisor and his or her employee, are dating, the employer can utilize protections such as a Love Agreement. A Love Agreement acknowledges the relationship and, within the agreement, both parties agree the relationship is consensual. Both parties typically agree not to show one another public affection in the workplace and, further, agree they will inform the employer if contact between the parties becomes unwelcome.
Open communication and quick action are imperative in situations involving office romances, specifically office romances turned violent. Individuals should exhaust all means to protect themselves from abusive partners and employers should take all precautions to assist employees in doing so.
¹Domestic Violence and the LGBTQ Community, June 2018
Russ A. Brinson is an attorney with Sodoma Law, based in Charlotte, N.C. His practice areas include Employment Law, Business Litigation and Personal Injury. Brinson is certified by the North Carolina Dispute Resolution Commission to conduct Superior Court mediations.
Amanda M. Cubit is an attorney in the Family Law practice at Sodoma Law. She is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, Family Law Section, and a volunteer speaker for the Mecklenburg County Domestic Violence Speakers Bureau.