It begins with an awkward exchange in the break room or a quick glance over the cubicle wall. If things go well, it might progress into an after-work cocktail at the lounge across the street. Then, like in a fairy tale, come those three, magic little words: Sign here, please.
Intra-office romances have proven to be contentious problems for involved couples as well as their employers. The love contract, a legal document that stipulates that the relationship is consensual and will not end in a sexual harassment lawsuit, is one increasingly popular method of fending off the costly legal repercussion that sometimes follows occupational affairs.
John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, says that companies are building up their walls of defense in the face of increased vulnerability. "Companies have greater litigation exposure today from increased downsizing," he says. "More companies take the protective measure of asking for contracts that reduce risk by spelling out the current state of affairs between a couple."
Combining work with romance, however, muddles the definition of an appropriate relationship. "Consensual", says attorney Gloria Allred, does not necessarily mean "welcomed." For example, an employee might consent to a relationship and sign the contract because they fear doing otherwise would endanger their place at the company.
"This is a way that employers try to minimize legal risk and jeopardy," Allred acknowledges, "but they would be better served by spending time in the training and implementation of policies to prevent sexual harassment."
Franke James, founder and editor of workplace advice website Office-Politics.com, agrees that the preventative agreements are often instated to protect a company, but can also be in the best interests of individual employees.
"It shines a light on the relationship, so that things aren't happening, you know – under cover," James says.
While love contracts can help make an intra-office relationship more comfortable or condonable, they will not prevent the more egregious acts of sexual harassment that Allred says are the real cause for concern in a company.
So rather than outfitting your office with a shiny new chastity belt, it is probably better to work on avoiding instances of sexual harassment altogether, Allred says. "It's better legal sense, it's better economic sense, and it's better common sense to train and monitor workplaces," she says. "It is much better to prevent it than to have to deal with the consequences."