Sign here before it gets serious

Kate Watson-Smyth reports on the trend among American employers to provide a legal framework for workplace romances
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The Independent Culture
The recent film In the Company of Men highlights with shocking clarity the dangers of the office relationship. Two men who believe that they have been badly treated by women decide to start an affair with the company secretary, who is deaf, and then dump her. The woman, who has never had a boyfriend, is initially flattered and goes out with both of them. But when she plucks up the courage to admit that she has been seeing them both and to say that she is in love with one of them, they tell her she has been duped and end the relationship, leaving her devastated.

It is a cautionary tale for the 1990s, and in America, where litigation is second nature, employers are working to prevent the fall-out from messy relationships. Several firms in California have drawn up contracts that employees are required to sign at the start of a relationship, proving that they entered into the affair voluntarily. The aim of the contract, which includes a clause stating that the couple are engaged in a "mutually consensual amorous relationship", is to prevent claims of unfair dismissal or sexual harassment by a jilted party.

Garry Mathiason, a Californian lawyer whose firm, Little, Mendelson, Fastiff, Tichy & Mathiason, drew up the first contracts two years ago, said he was amazed by the number of companies that were interested in the contracts. "It began when we were approached by the president of a firm who was young and single and concerned that if he had a relationship within the office it could lead to a court case if it all went wrong," Mathiason said. "He was worried that there could be allegations of sexual harassment so he wanted a contract to prove that the relationship had been agreed on both sides."

A sub-clause in such an agreement also requires the parties to inform the personnel department about any relationship and if there are problems, so that there can be no chance of retrospective action once an employee has left. "There is a huge focus on sexual relationships at the moment and there is paranoia on the part of high-level management who are looking for protection," Mathiason said.

"You only have to look at the White House to know that we have a problem with sexual relations in the office and companies are desperate to do something about it. It has reached epidemic proportions.

"The real issue is that lawyers know they can triple the amount of damages if someone comes to them talking about unfair dismissal and they can find an element of sexual harassment. These contracts are really about people trying to protect themselves from that."

Mathiason said the best advice was not to get involved in the first place. "The real choice is not to have a relationship in the office. Unless you are certain that you are going to marry this person you are working with, then you are walking on a dangerous road," he said.

It is advice that the England and Wales Cricket Board would have done well to heed following a recent well-publicised tribunal. The board was found guilty of sexual discrimination when the tribunal ruled that its senior staff had pressed a receptionist into having an abortion after she had an affair with a senior official.

Theresa Harrild, 32, said ECB officials had handed her pounds 400 in a brown envelope to have an abortion. She said she was sacked after depression, following the operation, prevented her from returning to work. She took two drug overdoses and said she was seen by a psychologist, paid for by the ECB, who tried to persuade her to leave her job. She and her boyfriend, who she has refused to name, have since split up.

British employment experts believe that these contracts will not be taken up in the UK despite increasing concern over the issue of inter-office relationships. Ian Hunter, a solicitor at Bird & Bird, said that British firms already had adequate disciplinary procedures to deal with office relationships. "Companies have recourse to charges of gross misconduct and sexual discrimination and there is no need for these contracts," he said. "They are just a way of trying to control employees' behaviour and I would be very surprised if they came over here.

"We are not as litigious as the Americans and I think directors would feel that it did not reflect well on their company if they were forcing people to sign contracts about their relationships."

Niall Murphy, a spokesman for the London office of the American firm AT&T, said the company tried to act in a mature and pragmatic way towards office relationships and saw no need for contracts. "It is not the company's business for the most part and we would much rather that people were open about it," he said. "Our policy is that if you treat people like adults they will behave like adults, and if a relationship breaks up we try and find a way that both people can stay with the company by perhaps giving them different responsibilities. It is a question of being flexible."

Sue Nickson, joint head of employment at Hammond Suddards, said there are obvious difficulties with the contracts, not least of which was that the couple would have to own up to having a relationship in the first place. "Either they own up to it or they may be `snitched on' by colleagues, or even caught in the act behind the photocopier," she said. "Most UK firms have turned a blind eye to such relationships unless the problems become impossible to ignore and some of the more proactive ones have formulated policies relating to inter-office relationships which are incorporated into an employee's contract."

Contracts varied widely, but the most common approach was to forbid office relationships altogether. "Usually the contract will say something like `we as a company do not entertain the idea of staff having relationships at work, and if there is one then we must be informed so that we can make arrangements for internal transfers'. It is because they are concerned that any relationship will have an adverse impact on peoples' work," Nickson said.

Other companies realise they cannot stop employees having relationships and simply ask to be informed.

"Most of them do not wish to know unless and until it becomes a problem. They do not want to be in the situation where one half of a married couple is having an affair and the rest of the office has to lie about it, which is very bad for business."

As long as the British approach to office relationships seems to be working, it is unlikely that the so-called "love contracts" will be instigated. But perhaps Bill Clinton is wishing he had heard of them when he took office.