Ky. Voices: Safer to avoid Valentine's Day at the workplace

On Valentine's Day, employers should take extra precautions to make sure chocolates, cards and confessions stay out of the workplace. Despite being known as the holiday of love, romance and sweet sentiments, it can quickly become an employer's worst nightmare. Whether it is a consensual office romance between co-workers that has other employees feeling inferior, or an innocent card from a manager to a subordinate, this time of the year can increase stress for employers about sexual harassment and other claims.

What might be intended as an innocent gift or card to show an employee appreciation for their efforts can easily be misinterpreted as an inappropriate gesture of love or affection. Likewise, what one employee considers a funny Valentine's Day email or card might be highly offensive to another as it makes its way around the office.

The United States Equal Opportunity Commission had 7,571 charges of sexual harassment reported in 2012, resulting in settlements of $43 million, not including settlements reached in litigation. And statistics show that 17.8 percent of the charges were filed by males, an increase from 16.1 percent of reports in 2011.

Remember, this is 2013 and we are a long way from the sweet lyrics of Frank Sinatra's My Funny Valentine. Pat Benatar's Love is a Battlefield is probably more appropriate these days as you review a few cases that highlight the risks involved:

In Illinois, a Valentine's Day card was the final straw for a female employee who claimed she was repeatedly the victim of sexual harassment. She failed to report the conduct until her supervisor gave her a card, which read "I can't imagine loving you more than I do today ... but tomorrow I will. Happy Valentine's Day, Sweetheart."

She reported this to her employer and eventually made claims for sexual harassment and retaliation. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a finding in favor of the employer and allowed the case to proceed.

In Florida, a female employee received a large red Valentine's Day card which read: "On Valentine's Day, remember — candy is dandy ... but sex won't rot your teeth! So what do you say!" This, along with other alleged acts of harassment from co-workers and her superior, resulted in multiple claims against the employer which were allowed to proceed.

A New York employee filed suit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation based, in part, on a Valentine's Day card from her boss which read: "But somehow it seems only right To say, today of all days, You're someone close in thought and heart, Not`now and then.'"

The female employee showed the card to the male human-resources manager who didn't see a problem with it. The case was allowed to proceed to a jury on whether sexual harassment took place.

And, remember that men can also raise complaints of sexual harassment. In one Ohio complaint (later dismissed), the male employee said that on Valentine's Day, a female worker told him that "she had sex with a particular truck driver once a year and briefly described her favorite sexual position." The male employee said he complained, and the case focused on the response of the company.

These cases just scratch the surface on the types of claims. In fact, one Kentucky employee filed suit alleging national-origin harassment based on an allegation that Hispanic employees were served after other workers at a company-sponsored dinner for employees on Valentine's Day.

The holiday is a great opportunity for employers to revisit sexual harassment and discrimination policies with employees. Pointing out the legal perils at stake could rein in bad behavior.