May 2, 2016

Love Gone Wrong:
Preventing Office Romance and Workplace Fraternization Issues

Businessman hiding flowers behind back to depict office romance

Lately, you’ve noticed something different about two of your employees. It started with the little smiles they exchanged throughout the day, then moved on to flirtatious teasing. Now, you realize that there’s an office romance brewing right under your nose. It’s obvious that love is in the air, but will it end up polluting the office environment?

At CEDR, we’ve seen the devastating consequences of office romances gone wrong, both personally and economically: teams demoralized, preexisting relationships or marriages destroyed, and business owners held captive by unrequited lovers with serious legal claims.

On the other hand, we all know one or two happy couples who began as an office romance. So, the question is, where do you draw the line—and when employees step over that line, are you prepared to play the anti-cupid?

Be forewarned: dealing with workplace romances is never easy. Here are a few things to consider:

Outright Office Romance Bans Don’t Work

Banning all office romance outright sounds good, but as a standalone policy, this is simply not effective. Trying to enact such a ban will likely cause those involved to hide their relationship for as long as possible, leading to an inevitable blow-up if things go sour. So, what do you do?

Relationships Should Be Covered by a “Fraternization Policy”

All handbooks should contain a fraternization policy to directly address office romances. Although courtship can add fun and positivity to the workplace, you need to protect yourself from potential liability, and let employees know what’s okay and what is absolutely not okay. For partners and associate doctors, it’s critical that they also understand what is truly at risk.

As you know, not every romance ends well, and some of us handle it better than others. When coworkers break up, the best-case scenario is some lost productivity and awkwardness, and there are plenty of other negative repercussions that could occur. But when there is a subordinate/supervisor breakup, you’re left with even more serious possibilities.

For one thing, the jilted subordinate could easily claim the relationship was forced or non-consensual. Suddenly, “friendly snuggles” become unwanted advances, and a sexual harassment suit ensues. Or perhaps you need to fire the subordinate because of poor performance—they now have a hefty threat to loom over you if you do. And what about the other employees in the office? If they feel someone has gotten preferential treatment, you may have just opened yourself up to a hostile working environment or discrimination lawsuit. As an employer, understand that you are strictly liable for the acts of your management team. That means even if you didn’t know about it, you’re in trouble because you should have known.

Thankfully, CEDR has your solution. All CEDR handbooks contain a fraternization policy. The policy requires employees to disclose relationships while simultaneously shielding the practice from litigation. Critically, employees who do disclose are required to abide by a Consensual Relationship Agreement (CSA), which shields you from liability above and beyond the fraternization policy. Best of all, the CSA is included for free with your handbook!

What About When Employees Date Patients?

As a professional, you hold yourself up to the highest standards of medical ethics. One crucial ethical guideline discourages (and may prohibit) practitioners from dating patients. The problem is, your employees are not all doctors, and even some doctors disregard the guidelines. What do you do when the patient becomes the problem?

Two bad options immediately spring to mind: fire the employee or stop treating the patient. While you can typically do either, both cost your practice money in either lost revenue or lost talent. To further complicate things, patients are not employees, so they cannot be forced to sign the CSA mentioned above. With all these restrictions, it is tempting to do nothing, but ignoring these relationships is a BAD idea. Here are a few common problems and simple solutions.

First, when employees date patients, you tend to see the patient more but bill them less—not an ideal circumstance! Since your practice is open for business, not pleasure, make it clear that patients are discouraged from coming in when they don’t have an appointment scheduled.

Additionally, ensure that patients are NEVER allowed in the back office without supervision. This can invite HIPAA and safety violations, and cause all sorts of other issues. Another big problem could arise if an employee-patient relationship ends badly. If the jilted lover is your employee, he or she might be tempted to access the patient’s medical or billing records. If you did not prevent such access, you could be on the hook for a HIPAA violation or lawsuit.

Again, CEDR members have a policy that takes care of this: Our fraternization policy also covers employee-patient relationships. It requires the employee to disclose patient relationships and keep management informed of major changes. Additionally, CEDR Solution Center members get unlimited access to HR advisors who can spot and address liability issues that you never knew existed. That’s a match made in heaven!

Bottom Line: Use Your Head for Affairs of the Heart

As with any other policy in your practice, it takes an HR expert to ensure that your fraternization policy and Consensual Relationship Agreement provide all the protections you deserve. To effectively lower your liability, these policies should be part of a comprehensive, legally compliant and up-to-date employee handbook. CEDR handbooks contain these policies and many more benefits and employer protections, all uniquely tailored to your individual needs.

Better yet, CEDR Solution Center members can speak with an HR advisor for any and all HR concerns. Advisors are highly trained attorneys and human resource experts dedicated to providing you superior HR solutions. They are your one-stop-shop for hiring, corrective actions, employee termination and everything in between. CEDR members can contact the Solution Center unlimited times with any HR concern—but even if you’re not a member yet, we’ll be happy to help you solve one ongoing HR issue in your practice, for free. Just give us a call at 866-414-6056, or email info@cedrsolutions.com.

 

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.