March 12th, 2019
Emily Fullerton at Schwabe
Ah, Valentine’s Day. The holiday of love. The bottom line of businesses such as flower shops and romantic restaurants may thrive on once-a-year professions of affection and attempts to woo a possible partner or current companion, but romance and the office simply do not mix. All employers should be aware of the possible red (heart-shaped) flags that can pop up when Cupid’s courage creeps its way into the workplace.
Whether you love love, hate love, or don’t care either way, remember that someone merely asking a co-worker to dinner does not necessarily rise to unwanted sexual harassment, but the line is fine. If the request has been repeated, comes from a supervisor or manager, or is denied and not respected, that seemingly holiday-appropriate request may lead to some serious HR headaches, not to mention the discomfort or embarrassment it may cause a valued employee faced with turning down a dinner date. So remind all employees and management of the anti-harassment policies in your handbook—or any policies in place that relate to employee and management relationships—and make sure that everyone knows that a love-themed holiday is not an invitation to ignore personal and professional boundaries. It is not safe or wise, ever, to assume any kind of office flirtation is harmless.
“Hot date tonight?” None of your business. Water-cooler conversation may lean romantic around Valentine’s Day, but it is important to remember that inquiries into the romantic personal lives of employees are off limits. Comments on after-work plans, whether someone is dressed up for an occasion, or inquiries into who sent those flowers or chocolates on the corner of a desk are a minefield and should be discouraged. While it is not the responsibility of the employer to stifle workplace banter and casual conversations, employers should take care to remind employees that February 14 does not provide a free pass to prying, inappropriate personal questions.
Keep in mind that many states include marital or familial status as protected classes. Employers can face liability if any negative employment action is taken because of an employee’s status in these protected classes. So if an employer has a number of employees asking for time off to celebrate a special someone, be careful not to require only those who are single, unmarried, or childless to cover for them.
What is taught in kindergarten is still true in the office—bring enough for everyone. If an employer chooses to indulge in a little holiday celebration of the red and pink variety, be sure it is an inclusive and non-romantic celebration. Be wary of singling any particular group of employees out. And be careful with those candy hearts—some of those messages have gotten racy as of late, and have no place in the hands of employees.
Employers should remember that when it comes to sexual harassment, intention does not matter. Cute notes with arrows through hearts may be intended by the sender as innocent, but if the recipient feels harassed or uncomfortable, you have a serious problem. Make sure managers are aware that romantically themed gifts to subordinates (or vice versa) should be avoided on this already romantic holiday. It is also prudent to train managers to be aware of signs that an employee may be receiving unwanted attention from a co-worker. Well-meaning or not, unwelcome affection or attention in a professional environment is unacceptable. And remember, if you do bring gifts, bring enough for everyone.
While these are just a few tips to help navigate a holiday rife with romantic undertones, employers should use common sense and prudent judgment when it comes to preparing for Valentine’s Day in a professional environment. All employees should feel respected and safe when they walk into work every morning. Employers may just need a bit more prep before February 14 to make sure Cupid stays off the clock.