Can a Consensual Workplace Relationship Create a Hostile Work Environment?

The dating scene is tough these days, especially for hard-working singles putting in 60-plus hours at the office every week. But if you've had your eye on the cutie in the next cubicle, consider that the consequences of intra-office dating can far outweigh the convenience of a consensual workplace relationship.

By now, we all know the consequences of blatant sexual harassment in the workplace, of promotion based on expectations unrelated to job duties or performance. But if two co-workers decide to enjoy a consensual relationship, why, isn't that their right?

Two-thirds of managers seem to think it is, according to a 2003 survey conducted by the American Management Association. In fact, 30% of those polled in the survey reported that they themselves had dated a co-worker at some point. But according to the State Supreme Court of California, not only can consensual workplace relationships create a hostile work environment, but employers can be held liable if and when such situations do occur.

The case, Miller v. Department of Corrections, involved several subordinates who allegedly received promotions in return for consensual sexual favors. The workplace environment became one where the plaintiffs claim they began to wonder what they, too, would have to do to advance, according to CNN.com.

Legal and political fall-out from this high-profile case proved widespread, as changes were made in California law requiring companies to train supervisors in how to prevent this type of hostile work environment.

But while relationships between consenting co-workers may be a hot-button issue in California, other states have yet to grapple with this difficult question. Many American companies do have policies prohibiting intra-office dating, but others uphold that what employees do on their own time is their own business.

Aside from the favoritism or retaliation that often occur as by-products of workplace relationships, such relationships can also create distraction, according to a December 2005 article by Proskauer Rose, LLP. Such relationships can interfere with work and productivity, proving disruptive to the workplace on the whole. Dating a co-worker, either a superior or a subordinate, can negatively affect your job performance, leading to unsatisfactory evaluations.

Additionally, what may seem like harmless flirting to you may be offensive to other co-workers, thereby creating a hostile work environment for them. That not only makes you liable, but it can make your employer liable as well if they have permitted the relationship to continue in the open.

So is a workplace relationship worth the risk? Even if your company, your supervisor, and your co-workers have no complaints, consider the personal repercussions. The sad fact is that most relationships don't end in happily-ever-after. Breaking up is painful enough when you don't have to contend with your ex on a daily basis. And what if you are the one who decided it was just not working out? Does the idea of seeing the person you just dumped on a daily basis seem all that appealing?

In short, there many reasons for the cliché about avoiding the company ink. Whether a moratorium on intra-office dating comes down from company headquarters or from your own personal conscious, the best way to avoid liability, a hostile work environment, or just some plain old awkward moments is to avoid dating a co-worker, no matter how attracted to each other you might be.