By Chris Morehead
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Virtually no workplace is immune from employees being struck by Cupid’s arrow. In fact, some HR surveys suggest that up to 40 percent of American workers have had a romantic relationship in the workplace. Of course, employers in the craft beer industry are no exception — particularly at smaller breweries and taphouses where it is relatively common for couples to work together. But when relationships sour like a gose, it might be worthwhile if you had an effective love contract in place.
What’s a Love Contract?
Never heard of one? The term “love contract” refers to a written agreement between two employees that have mutually and voluntarily entered into a romantic relationship (sounds romantic, doesn’t it?). These agreements usually state that both employees fully understand their employer's policies regarding harassment in the workplace and reaffirm that the relationship is fully consensual and free of coercion or undue influence. In a nutshell, they’re intentionally designed to reduce the risk of litigation if a workplace relationship falls apart or otherwise becomes toxic.
In order to be effective, a love contract should contain language addressing the following:
—The relationship is consensual and not based on intimidation, threat, coercion or harassment.
--The employees have received, read and agree to abide by the company's policy against harassment and discrimination and all other company policies.
--The employee(s) agree not to let their relationship affect their work, or the work of their coworkers.
--Both employees may end the relationship at any time without fear of retaliation.
--The employees have had sufficient time to read the document and ask questions before executing it of their own free will.
--Whom the employee(s) should report to if the relationship status is impacting either employee’s work.
--Prohibitions against nepotism or favoritism.
--Inappropriate workplace communication (via company cell phones, email or other means) is impermissible.
When requiring employees to sign their love contract, consider presenting the agreements separately and having them signed outside of the other employee’s presence. This helps avoid claims that the signatures were coerced, which is an argument that has been used against employers in previous lawsuits. Also, consider whether you want to incorporate a term that requires the employees to give notice once the relationship ends.
Supervisor and Subordinate Relationships
Special considerations should be given to romantic relationships that arise between managers and subordinates. Generally, supervisor and subordinate relationships should be prohibited to avoid the appearance or claims of undue influence, favoritism, coercion or harassment. If a supervisor and subordinate become involved in a relationship, you may need to alter reporting structures within the company so that the supervisory employee no longer exerts direct control over the management of the subordinate.
Also remember that it is important that company policies, as well as disciplinary action, are applied consistently regardless of either employee's tenure, position within the organization or past performance.
Finally, understand that you don’t have to have a love contract policy and document. You might determine such a policy is “too corporate” and doesn’t jive with your workplace culture. As long as you keep a watchful eye on your employees and quickly step in should romantic relationships become an issue, you might be able to get away with not implementing them. Love contracts should be viewed as an additional security blanket that can help insulate your brewery or taproom from costly employment litigation, but just like rauchbier, they aren’t for everyone.
Chris Morehead is an attorney in the Portland office of Fisher Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm. He focuses on hospitality employers, with an emphasis on the craft beer industry. When not in the office, he’s collecting badges on “Untappd.” He can be reached at CMorehead@fisherphillips.com or 503-205-8099.