What to Do About Office Romances?

By Jennifer Jacobus, PHRca, SHRM-CP, San Diego Employers Association

Spring fling, summer romance, no matter what you call it, it can spell trouble it if involves co-workers. It’s no secret that the employees of today’s workforce spend more time at work than they do at home; in many cases, there just isn’t time to pursue a romantic relationship outside of the office. It seems only natural that workplace romances may evolve.

In a survey regarding office dating, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Wall Street Journal’s CareerJournal.com, 77 percent of HR professionals reported sexual harassment concerns, and 67 percent said they had concerns about retaliation.

The same survey reported that only 4 percent of HR professionals and 14 percent of employees said dating in the workplace shouldn’t be permitted. However, 80 percent of HR professionals and 60 percent of employees opposed dating between a supervisor and a subordinate.

The survey found that more than 70 percent of organizations had no policies on workplace romance, and of those that did, the vast majority merely discouraged dating rather than forbidding it. Only 9 percent of organizations prohibited dating in the workplace entirely.

As an employer or HR professional, here are some things to consider when deciding at what level to interfere with your employees’ personal affairs:

– Relationships are hard, and sometimes there will be arguments. Co-workers involved in a romantic relationship can cause increased tension at work, especially if one partner’s position is superior to the other or if they are working on the same team. If a supervisor and employee have a personal argument, will the supervisor be able to treat the subordinate with respect at the office?

– A potential office romance will always fuel the rumor mill. Remember, in an office setting, perception is reality. Even subtle flirting at work can be enough to start the rumors of a relationship. There also could be claims of favoritism if the love interest is the supervisor.

– What happens if the relationship ends? If a relationship ends with a bad breakup, will major confrontations be avoided at work? What about retaliation or perceived retaliation?

– Office romances pose several potential legal issues for employers, prompting some to use “love contracts” to help minimize their liability

If you are considering such a “contract,” here are some elements we suggest you include:

– If employees are on the same reporting level, the contract should include language stating that “the employees will not seek or accept a position where one reports to the other.”

– If one employee already supervises the other before the romance begins and it’s not possible to transfer one of them, consider requiring that the supervisor agrees “to be permanently removed from any decision-making authority over the subordinate.”

– Since harassment can potentially play a role in an ugly breakup, include language that “dating employees agree to waive their rights to pursue a claim of sexual harassment for any event prior to the signing of the contract.”

Such a policy should be incorporated into your employee handbook as well. The policy should state that the employees have an obligation to notify human resources about the relationship. To be certain that the policy is applied fairly, once the company becomes aware of any type of romantic relationship, it is important that the couple is approached, not necessarily together, so that they can be reminded of company policy.

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