Vanderpump Rules chronicles the life and times of the extremely attractive employees at former Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump’s highly successful restaurants throughout greater Los Angeles. Bravo fans were shocked when reports recently surfaced that the mustachioed Tom Sandoval, co-owner of TomTom, was cheating (gasp!) on his longtime girlfriend, SUR Restaurant & Lounge employee and castmate Ariana Madix.
Not only is Tom cheating, but he’s doing it with costar and coworker Raquel Levvis. And all of this came out just as a new season dropped. Oh, the drama (and increased ratings)!
From the Screen to Your Workplace
Of course, a scandal like this makes for fantastic reality TV. But an employer’s reality when coworkers date (or, in this case, end up in a love triangle with the boss) isn’t such a delight.
What might start as a lovely romance between two consenting adults can quickly dissolve into a workplace soap opera.
Not only do workplace relationships carry inherent drama (which is great for those Bravo ratings but bad for business and productivity), but they also increase the risk of sexual harassment claims against the employer and often lead to accusations of favoritism, poor employee morale, and even workplace violence, especially if one of those adults is also the boss.
So what can you as an employer do to protect yourself? The answer depends on the working relationship between the couple.
Office Dating Scenario #1: Dating a Subordinate
Managers (and especially the business owner!) should never date a subordinate (no less two … at the same time). Employers are generally held strictly liable for quid pro quo sexual harassment because (owners) supervisors, managers, and agents act directly on behalf of their employer. If a manager is dating a subordinate, you should reassign the subordinate to a new manager without any change in pay or position.
But sometimes that’s impossible (such as, for example, when the owner’s dating an employee or, in the case of Tom, two).
In those cases, you should ask one of the employees (preferably the manager) to resign. But even that’s sometimes not practicable. In those situations, a “love contract” sometimes works. In a love contract, the couple states they’re engaged in a consensual relationship, an outline is made regarding what the couple should do if the relationship ends or stops being consensual, and the couple affirms they’re aware of the company’s policies on sexual harassment and workplace ethics and understand the consequences of failure to follow those policies.
It isn’t a perfect solution, but it offers some evidence that no sexual harassment occurred, at least as of the date the agreement was signed.
Office Dating Scenario #2: Non-Reporting Coworkers
Coworkers without a reporting relationship are different. While you may want to schedule them on different shifts, the most important thing is to remind them in writing that sexual harassment is illegal, as well as provide them with a copy of the company’s sexual harassment policy.
Remind them that work time is for work, their personal life should take place on their personal time, and they shouldn’t engage in public displays of affection while at work. Violations are like any other violation of any other work rule. Managers should keep an eye and ear out (a “Watch What’s Happening Live,” if you will) for any issues the relationship may be causing with coworkers and address them promptly with HR.
Let Tom’s situation also be a reminder to review and update sexual harassment policies. Reality TV reminds us of the current times. Any sexual harassment policy that doesn’t mention IMs, text messages, social media, e-mail, and the plethora of other electronic ways people communicate (and act badly) today needs some updating.
If you haven’t conducted sexual harassment training since the pandemic, now’s the perfect time. That way, employees can be clear on what is and isn’t acceptable conduct in the workplace.
Most importantly, don’t be like Tom; model the way you want your coworkers to interact together.
Most of us spend more of our adult lives with coworkers than our own family and friends. People are people, so workplace romances are inevitable. But workplace romances don’t have to lead to the drama worthy of a reunion special if you take some time to properly manage the situation.
Rachel Ullrich is a Partner in FordHarrison’s Dallas, Houston office. Johanna Zelman is a Partner in FordHarrison‘s Hartford, New York City office.