Every February a high-level manager buys Tiffany necklaces and gives them to the women in his office—on Valentine’s Day.
The manager, who makes a lot of money, doesn’t consider the gift extravagant. Moreover, he doesn’t single anyone out, bestowing the jewelry on all the women he works with, no matter their age or marital status.
Is it an appropriate gesture? Or does it amount to an unwelcome romantic overture?
“He thought it was a nice present, [and] he didn’t have any romantic intentions toward any of these women,” said Ogletree Deakins attorney Alexandra Bodnar, who looked into the gift-giving after one woman complained to HR. “But each individual only knew about the gift that she got. Some realized he was just an extravagant gift-giver, but it was clear that some were uncomfortable.”
Bodnar, who specializes in harassment and discrimination law, said no lawsuits resulted. But the episode, she said, demonstrated that HR professionals need to communicate clear guidelines about employee behavior on Valentine’s Day.
Office-Romance Policies Stricter
Harley Storrings, a labor and employment attorney at Arnstein & Lehr LLP, said the manager might have avoided complaints had his company spelled out what is and isn’t allowed—in terms of gifts, cards and romantic displays among co-workers.
“What I would recommend is very small gifts and give them to everybody,” Storrings said. “When you give the gift to one specific gender, you risk not only women coming forward and saying they felt this was harassment; you also risk a claim of gender discrimination. Men do file lawsuits saying they’re being discriminated against.”
Company policies about office romance are a lot stricter today than they were just a few years ago, according to a September 2013 survey of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The survey, Workplace Romance, found that more than twice as many employers have written or verbal polices on office romances than did in 2005, even though the vast majority of respondents (67 percent) said the number of romances among employees has stayed the same over the past eight years.
Some employment experts discourage any Valentine’s Day card exchanges in the office. Leslie Wallis, another labor attorney at Ogletree Deakins, recalled one instance of card-giving that led to a sexual harassment lawsuit: A manager gave a subordinate a card with a cartoon drawing of a person’s naked behind on the front.
“It wasn’t particularly romantic,” Wallis said, adding that the card might have been a thank-you gesture for the woman’s help on a project. “He thought it was cute, and he wanted to thank her, but it wasn’t the wisest move.”
The firm settled the woman’s lawsuit for a nominal amount of money, said Wallis, who discourages Valentine’s Day presents of any kind in the office.
“The whole concept of gift-giving on Valentine’s Day has that romantic overlay,” Wallis noted. “Why are you giving a gift? This is a romantic day, so you’re starting with the premise that any gift on this day may have broader meaning than, say, if it was given on the 4th of July.”
Couples in the Office
What about gift or card exchanges between married or dating couples in an office?
Although some employment experts discourage Valentine’s Day gifts delivered at work, Storrings said gifts between office couples are appropriate as long as they’re in good taste. A bouquet of flowers delivered to the office is fine; sexy lingerie probably isn’t.
“When you get to the point where you’re telling husbands and wives, ‘Hey, if you buy something, don’t let anyone here see it,’ you’re maybe overreaching. It would be one thing to send flowers, and it’s something else to send something that’s intimate that shouldn’t be shared outside the couple’s relationship.”
Managers who date (or are married to) lower-level employees must be especially careful about Valentine’s Day demonstrations, Wallis said, even if they don’t directly supervise their significant other.
“You can’t control what goes on outside” the office, she said. “But, hopefully, something in your training lets people know they need to be sensitive when they are in a personal relationship, because that may have an impact on the people around them. Something very extravagant can result in an impression of favoritism. Also, you should avoid anything of a sexual nature, whether a card or a sexual toy.”
Forty percent of the SHRM survey respondents said employees complained about favoritism between co-workers in a romantic relationship. Such perceptions can damage office morale, the survey authors wrote.
Plenty of companies forbid intimate relationships even when there aren’t supervisory concerns. About one-third of organizations prohibit romances between employees who report to the same supervisor or between an employee and a client or customer, both up from 13 percent in 2005, SHRM found. Almost one in 10 (11 percent) also don’t allow romances between their employees and those of competitor organizations, up from 4 percent in 2005. And more than one in 10 (12 percent) won’t even allow workers in different departments to pair up.
Respondents worry that office romances will lead to public displays of affection; inappropriate sharing of confidential company information between romantic partners; inappropriate gossiping among co-workers; less productivity from the couple and their colleagues; and damage to the organization’s image because the pairing may be seen as unprofessional.
Managers who want to acknowledge cupid’s holiday could bring in a treat or gift cards to share with all employees in a department, Storrings suggested. Cookies, candy and cupcakes are easily shared and generally appreciated. Another idea would be to take the whole department out to lunch.
It’s important for HR managers to customize their office-romance policies based on what’s happened at the company in the past, Bodnar and Wallis agreed.
“It can be a problem using canned training tools,” Wallis said. “When people listen to a video that doesn’t specifically speak to them, they tend to tune it out. But when you say things like, ‘This has happened in your workplace,’ they perk up because they realize this can have an impact directly on them.”
Said Bodnar: “As an HR person, you know your workplace better than the outside trainer does, and you can customize the training to deal with facts that are prevalent in the workplace. If you have a lot of young single people who are dating or hooking up, your training will probably look different than [one for] a workplace with a lot of older married people.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Valentine's Day: Office Romance Is Here to Stay, but How Employers Deal with It Is Changing, SHRM Finds (February, 2014)
Forbidden Love: Workplace-Romance Policies Now Stricter (September 2013)