Cupid’s Arrow, Shooting Shots, Love Contracts and The Whole Shebang: Managing Inherent Risks In Workplace Romance

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By Juliet Omesiete

Ben and Rita, at the start of their romance were perceived a power couple. They both led their departments at Monie-Apps Tech, a fin-tech solutions firm based in Lagos, Nigeria, and were each influential and successful in their own right. Ben, being the alpha male that he was, fixed his gaze on Rita, determined to have her to himself, not necessarily for keeps, but for the sake of it. Rita had her concerns, but this was Ben; The Ben, the song on every lady’s lips at the office, and though a team lead herself, with the same earning power as Ben, she was enthralled that Ben saw her in that light. Sadly, what began as a sweet journey was soon met with the breakfast[1] that many seem to have accepted as the ultimate fate of all relationships, within three months.

Turns out Ben had been sexually harassing Khara, a junior colleague, and member of his team, much to the displeasure and chagrin of Khara. Ben seemed to have forgotten how to keep his hands to himself whenever he was around Khara, and was wont to touch her inappropriately. Khara found herself in a conflicting position, seeing that she loved and respected Rita, and had been mentored by Rita at the start of her career at Monie-Apps Tech. She desperately wanted to escalate to Rita, who was the head of the Human Resources (HR) department, but wondered how Rita would treat the issue.

On a fateful day, Rita walked in on Ben while his hands roamed heedlessly around Khara’s body. Ben was so engrossed that he did not notice that Rita was standing at the door. She watched Khara struggle, plead, and asked to be left alone, threatening also to escalate to HR. Ben had laughed hysterically, daring Khara to escalate, assuring her that Rita would be on his side and not hers.

Rita, jolting back to life from her deep disappointment, to the realities of her work obligations; knocked on the open door, asked Khara to excuse them, called off her relationship with Ben, and immediately went to Khara, asking if she would be willing to testify at the disciplinary proceedings to be held in relation to the occurrence, and immediately issued a query to Ben once Khara gave her confirmation. Ben was found wanting, and summarily dismissed from the company.

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Ajayi, a highly successful and talented young man with a lovely family (his ex-beauty pageant queen wife and three children) is the CEO of Neutralino Energies, situate in Abuja. His success is easily palpable from the ton of awards littered across shelves in his office, with lot more lined on the sides of the floor. His personal assistant, Kachi, is such a vision. Given their close proximity, and time spent together on weekdays and weekends – and yes, add nights to the mix, it was obvious this was going to turn into something else. In time, Ajayi found himself gushing and making open remarks about Kachi’s clothes, figure, beauty, and just everything Kachi. Throwing caution to the wind, Ajayi started making overtures towards Kachi, which she respectfully, always turned down, reminding Ajayi of his marriage and family.

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Ajayi, wanting to have his way forced himself, though unsuccessfully on Kachi. Walking out of his office, Kachi walked straight to her workstation, typed her resignation letter, sends it, picks her things, and left the office building. Ajayi had thought he had heard the last of Kachi until he was notified of the filing of a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and Neutralino Energies.

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The stories above are absolutely unreal. And I should quickly add that the characters are totally fictional. Any resemblance with any real life person/scenario is at the least, unintended, and at the most, miraculous.

That said, I know the reader has questions they want answered. I will raise and answer some in succeeding paragraphs, and if I have left any questions out, you can share them via email or in the comments section.

Is it illegal for co-workers to date each other in Nigeria? 

My immediate answer to this is a big NO. Love should not be legislated, biko.[2] Are we emotional robots? Besides, Cupid’s arrow can hit anyone, and mumu button[3] would just be instantly activated. So, thankfully, the answer is no; not for my reasons though, but because there is no law prohibiting workplace romance. That said, dating a co-worker can be wrong and unacceptable, depending on an employee’s contract, or a company’s handbook or internal policies.

In a 2018 CareerBuilder’s Annual Valentine’s Day Survey, it was reported that 36% of employees have been involved in an office romance[4]. A 2015 Google Customer Surveys’ data revealed that 18% of couples met at work. For example, Bill Gates of Microsoft met his Ex-Wife Melinda Gates while the latter was an employee of the former. In another 2021 Zety Survey, it was reported that 57% of workers in America have dated their peer, 24% have dated a subordinate, 11% have dated their boss, and 8% have dated a higher-up but not a direct manager.[5] In all, a total of 89% of workers in America found their co-workers attractive[6]. So, these things happen.

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What are the prevalent risks in workplace romance?

Workplace romance, when between an employer and employee or a senior and a junior colleague can take an ugly turn as much as it can be endearing. Work assessments and incentives could be clouded by favouritism and ground claims for discrimination by other equally/more qualified employees. More often than not, merit would be sacrificed on the altar of special favours and the hard work of other employees will not be recognised. And where situations as this persist, constructive termination claims can crystallise upon the resignation of the affected employees.

Beyond the above-stated risks, there is also a possibility of high level financial liabilities for companies whose risks can range from sexual harassment to unfair termination suits, and costs/damages flowing therefrom. So, where romantic relationships in the workplace interferes with the employees professionalism and discretion, enough to be termed workplace sexual harassment, the employers can, to a large extent, be held vicariously liable for acts of employees, especially where those acts have been condoned.

It would seem the National Industrial Court (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2017 recognises the possibility of workplace romance in its definition of sexual harassment. It distinguishes sexual attention that is welcome and mutual, from sexual harassment. By Order 1 Rule 10(2) of the Rules: “Sexual harassment” means an unwanted, unpleasant, offensive or threatening conduct of a sexual nature distinguished from sexual attention that is welcome and mutual. Sexual attention becomes sexual harassment if—

  • the behaviour is persistent, although a single incident or instance can constitute sexual harassment; and/or
  • the recipient has made it clear that the behaviour is considered offensive; and/or
  • the perpetrator should have known that the behaviour is regarded as unacceptable.

The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) in a landmark decision in the case of Ejike Maduka v Microsoft & Ors[7] has established that where an employer becomes aware of a workplace sexual harassment incidence and takes no administrative decision to investigate and address it, such employer may be liable for breaching its duty of care owed to the employee to protect the employee’s fundamental rights.

How can companies regulate workplace romance?

It has been said that connections between employers and employees can improve workplace culture, and inspire commitment in employees, making them stay longer at a particular employment.[8] However, companies need to devise internal policies that define and delineate the nature, extent, and standards of acceptable relationships at the workplace, as it would be in the best interest of employers that the workplace does not degenerate to a social hub of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, public displays of affections, a room for adultery, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that wrongfully interfere with an individual’s work and further induces an offensive, hostile, and intimidating work environment.

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As a response to what may seem an inevitable desire for workplace romance and in a bid to mitigate the risks occasioned by such relationships, employers should work towards achieving any of the following:

  1. Encourage full disclosure of workplace romance by employees, and in the event of disclosure, have both parties sign a love contract (a voluntary and consensual relationship agreement) by which employees state that they have received, read, and understood the company’s anti-harassment policy and are bound to never act contrary to the provisions, and undertake to hold the company harmless in the event that the romance goes south. It goes without saying, that this would work only where there is such a policy in place. 
  1. The company may prohibit workplace romance between employees. This should be incorporated into all employees’ contracts and in the company’s staff handbook and other internal policies of the company. 
  1. Organize monthly, quarterly, or annual trainings on workplace relationships, and how best employers and employees can avoid sexual harassment claims.

In as much as employers are conscious of the need to regulate workplace relationships, care must be exercised in the way internal policies are drafted, ensuring they do not breach the employee’s privacy rights as guaranteed in Section 37 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended). No employer can kill Cupid, but there must be policies to meet its arrow halfway, hedging against risks that may result in financial liabilities.

Juliet is an Associate at Perchstone & Graeys LP, and a member of the Labour & Employment Practice Group.

Footnotes

[1] Breakfast has recently been loosely used in colloquial expressions on the Nigerian social media space to mean heartbreak.

[2] Biko, in my dialect, means please. But it is generally used by non-native speakers to mean the same thing.

[3] Mumu button has recently been loosely used in colloquial expressions on the Nigerian social media space to mean a soft spot one may have that causes them to make unusual concessions.

[4]See https://press.careerbuilder.com/2018-02-01-Office-Romance-Hits-10-Year-Low-According-to-CareerBuilders-Annual-Valentines-Day-Survey Accessed February 2, 2022.

[5] Michael Tomaszewski “Dating Co-workers in Numbers: 2021 study”. Published 04/14/2021. Available at https://zety.com/blog/office-romance Accessed February 2, 2022.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Unreported Suit Number NICN/LA/492/2012, Judgement delivered on December 19, 2013.

[8] Jennifer Betts “Love at Work: 5 Things for Employers to Know”. Available at https://www.natlawreview.com/article/love-work-5-things-employers-to-know Accessed February 2, 2022.

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