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MARRIAGE TO CO-WORKER DOESN'T MEAN HAPPY ENDING

It's not unusual for a company roster to include one or more married couples who met on the job, fell in love, married and are able to live and work together happily ever after.

But for every positive outcome of office romance, there are the not-so-happy endings that spawn everything from decreased workplace morale and productivity, to lawsuits, according to Buffalo lawyer Ginger Schroder.

"Cupid in the workplace is a lose-lose proposition," Schroder said. "In my experience, today's office romance is tomorrow's lawsuit where everybody comes out a loser."

Workplace matings between management level staffers and subordinates are particularly prone to nasty endings, according to Schroder, who specializes in employment law.

"What starts out as a consensual relationship deteriorates to allegations of sexual harassment," she said.

A new national study indicates that even though Cupid's arrow can score true love among co-workers, most Americans think it's better to find romance outside the workplace. The "America At Work" poll, conducted by the Employment Law Alliance (ELA), found that two-thirds of Americans think manager/employee relationships are harmful and can result in favoritism and retaliation.

The survey also found that 52 percent of respondents favor regulations barring supervisor-subordinate relationships.

Schroder, a member of the ELA who has handled about a dozen of the resulting lawsuits in recent years, said the worst outcomes usually involve married male bosses and female subordinates whose relationships end when the man ultimately declines to end his marriage.

"And it's not just the stereotypical boss-secretary affairs, it's happening within all levels of corporation," she said.

The former lovers in local cases Schroder has handled run the gamut from a police lieutenant and a patrol officer, to a managing attorney and a staff lawyer.

With Americans spending increased time in the workplace to further their careers and keep their companies competitive, the employment law specialist said she expects to see more of these relationships, and their unintended impact on business.

Most local companies don't have official policies about who can date whom and under what circumstances. The prevailing method of dealing with potentially thorny involvements is case-by-case assessments, with no umbrella rule.

Ivoclar North America, a Williamsville dental products maker, is one of the few to adopt and follow a company-wide policy.

Alan Korman, Ivoclar vice president and general counsel, said while the company walks a fine line between dictating corporate policy and telling workers what they can do in their personal lives, its fraternization/nepotism policy has proved workable.

"We've taken a proactive approach that's made clear at the start of the hiring process," Korman said. "So far, it's not posed a conflict."

Ivoclar prohibits hirings that would put family members, spouses or co-habitating partners in the same department. If a relationship develops with a co-worker after they are hired, the company has the right to either relocate one of the parties to a new position, or let one of them go.

"It's come up three or four times, and we've always found an alternative position. No one's been fired," Korman said.

Schroder said conflicting state and federal court rulings on whether employers have the right to say "no" to employee relationships leave management and staffers in limbo.

"It's incumbent on employers to at least get the subject out in the open, to initiate the discussion," she said. "It's a very personal topic, a very emotional one, but the conversation might cause employees to think twice about the impact a workplace relationship can have on their careers."

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