Legal Woes of Valentine’s Day in the Workplace
On February 14, 2016, the day of romance is bestowed upon us. While the precise origins of Valentine’s Day, also known as Saint Valentine’s Day, remain murky, February 14 has become synonymous with romantic love. The day is celebrated with the exchange of candy, flowers, gifts and cards between loved ones.
While love is in the air and love should be celebrated, when cupid makes an appearance in the office it can quickly translate into awkwardness, unprofessionalism, and even unlawful harassment and discrimination.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it would be wise to think twice before using the day as an excuse to be a little more forward with a co-worker or more open about your love life. For example, in Johnson v. West, a supervisor’s Valentine’s Day card that expressed the supervisor’s love for a subordinate employee, signed “Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart,” was the straw that broke the camel’s back that culminated into a sexual harassment lawsuit by the employee against the supervisor and employer. Below is a list of do’s and don’ts to keep things joyous, yet professional.
Do not give gifts to one coworker and not others. Singling out a select employee (or select group of employees) can turn out disastrous with missed expectations, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. If you are giving something to one, give it to all, or else the question of favoritism or unfair treatment is likely to make an appearance. When the question of unfair treatment is raised, particularly when the gifts or treatment are associated with a day of romance, the basis of the unfair treatment is much more easily tied to a legally protected characteristic, such as gender or sex. This in turn can equate to legal problems.
Do not give co-workers expensive or inappropriate gifts. This is particularly problematic when supervisors purchase expensive or inappropriate gifts for subordinates. Giving extravagant gifts can be viewed in a many different ways, including the not so good ways associated with sexual favoritism.
Valentine’s Day is not a justification for inappropriate behavior. While Valentine’s Day should be celebrated, do not be over-zealous in your celebrating. Being overly affectionate with co-workers may not only make them uncomfortable, but it could be viewed as flirting and, depending on the nature of the conduct, it could constitute harassment.
Do not allow your emotions to openly run wild. Valentine’s Day does not grant you a free license to express your emotions or opinions about your relationship or the relationships of others. Nor does the day give you free reign to act on the emotional attraction toward someone you may have had pent up inside you for the last year. Such conduct, while in appropriate cases could be welcomed, could be received as anything from inappropriate to harassment.
Do not share the details of your love life with co-workers. As with the other “no no’s”, Valentine’s Day does not open the door to sharing the spicy details of your love life with co-workers. Even if you are close with your co-workers, the office is not the appropriate place to be discussing such details.
Do wish your co-workers a happy Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day has become of a day of celebration of love and sharing your love for those around you and for the work you do should not be viewed as per se taboo. Wishing your colleagues a heart-felt Happy Valentine’s Day is appropriate, as long as the love is spread evenly and appropriately.
Bring small, inexpensive gifts or treats, such as cookies, for everyone in the office to share. Cookies, small treats, or desserts are a great way to show co-workers you care about them, without crossing the gray line of what could constitute inappropriate conduct.
Treat your employees to a company-wide dinner or other activity. Showing your employees you appreciate them for everything they do for your company should be celebrated. Organizing a company-wide dinner or other activity is a great way to show appreciation for all employees, without implications of showing unfair treatment.
Use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to share what you love about your job. Focus not on the romantic components of a relationship with co-workers, but focus on their work. Share with co-workers what you believe to be their positive attributes as they relate to their job. As always, keep it professional.
For more information about your legal rights in the workplace or if you have any questions or concerns about your job, please do not hesitate to contact an attorney at Zeldes Haeggquist & Eck, LLP.