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Proper training to discourage office romances, and an appropriate response if they do occur, are both critical factors in minimizing employers' potential liability, observers say.
Just having an anti-sexual harassment policy is not enough, said Arlene Vernon, a consultant with Eden Prairie, Minn.-based HRx Inc.
Employers "also need to train their managers on how to implement the policy and train the employees as to their rights regarding the policy. If they fail to do either of those two things, there's a very, very strong chance they're going to lose the lawsuits," said Ms. Vernon.
"Make it clear" that sexual harassment is prohibited, said Teresa Tracy, an attorney with Baker & Hostetler L.L.P. in Los Angeles. "Encourage people to report it, with the commitment that reports will be promptly and appropriately investigated with appropriate remedial action," she said.
Training can cover cases such as, "is it OK to ask someone out 20 times," even though they keep saying "No," said Shanti Atkins, president and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based ELT Inc., which provides employment law training programs. "Understanding those kinds of boundaries with training is really important."
When an employer learns of a workplace romance, response procedures are also important, observers say.
The best way to avoid liability is to deal with these issues internally, said Martin W. Aron, an attorney with Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge L.L.P. in Short Hills, N.J. "That's why these mechanisms are essential," he said
Give people "a clear, well-defined and narrow complaint system. You don't just tell them you can complain to any manager in the company," said Teresa Butler Stivarius, an attorney with Epstein Becker & Green P.C. in Atlanta.
"That opens the door to people complaining to the lowest level of supervisors, and then that information does not end up going where it needs to go to" so that the situation can be investigated. Ms. Stivarius added also that increasingly, some companies are introducing anonymous hotlines where employees can register complaints.
When a company becomes aware of a relationship between unequals, at a minimum, there should be a "frank discussion with both people involved," said Paul C. Buchanan, an attorney with Stoel Rives L.L.P. in Portland, Oregon.
Make sure, for instance, that the "higher-level employee understands that there can't be any negative repercussions for the other employee if the relationship should break up."
And confirm with the lower-level employee that the relationship is voluntary and that the worker knows the firm's sexual harassment policy and that "the organization has not empowered the managerial employee to impact the terms and conditions" of their employment. These understandings should be documented and signed, said Mr. Buchanan.