Rules and Recommendations Regarding Office Romances
By Tyler Jensen, SPHR, PHRca, SHRM-SCP
Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching! While many businesses are gearing up for a fantastic season of flowers, candy, gifts, meals and romantic weekends, this can be a dreaded time for Business Managers and HR professionals. As plans are made and new relationships are formed, we often lose sight of the joy in the “Season of Love” in the workplace. Here are some ideas about preparing for Valentine’s Day without becoming the office curmudgeon.
Issue #1—Oversharing in the Workplace
While employees are discussing their romantic plans, other employees and customers may be caught in the exchange with less enthusiasm. “I just want to finish this task,” Lonely Larry says to himself. “I don’t need to hear about your perfect relationship and perfect date.” And, in this case, Larry is correct.
When possible, ask your coworkers to celebrate their affection outside of the workplace. The practical concerns are many, with third-party Harassment or Hostile Workplace concerns topping the list. If employees meet and share this away from work, the chance of these claims hitting the workplace is lessened.
Individual employees or even small cliques may require private coaching meetings with management as a preventative measure. Rather wearing your Management blinders throughout the season, address the business-related concerns ASAP in a tactful and private way. The message to the happy employees is not an admonishment; rather, encourage those positive feelings to continue BUT ask that discussions occur outside of the workplace. Tailor the message from “no more!” to a kinder “not here.”
Issue #2—Vocal and Open Resentment of Others
This is the mirror opposite issue from #1. “Keep it to yourself—we’re trying to work here,” says Jaded Joe (or Jane), nearly shouting. Many employees only share small portions of their personal lives with co-workers and create solid distinctions between work and personal.
In this case, a good approach is similar to the tactics used in Issue #1: Meet with the employee or employees privately, acknowledge the awkwardness and provide tools to respectfully address the oversharing coworkers. An additional step in this case is to clearly ask about any offense, language usage, or similar behavior that can lead to a third party harassment claim.
Issue #3—Coworkers are Now a Romantic “Item”
Romance and relationships can be wonderful at times, but relationships sometimes end. Increasingly, people are meeting and dating at work. The obvious rationale is due to the time we spend together. Again, rather than ignore or “putting on the Management blinders,” discuss your concerns with the couple in a private setting. Consider meeting offsite if you can manage the privacy concerns.
The items to discuss in this meeting are specific and important. While Management doesn’t have rights to regulate normal off-work behavior, you do have various obligations to the workplace and the business itself. Suggested topics to cover include: Prohibition of open physical expression while in the office (PDAs or Public Displays of Affection, as we used to call them), limiting those who “need to know” about the relationship in the workplace, keeping to work while at work and not spending excessive time together while neglecting work tasks and duties, and consciously avoiding any behavior at work that may lead to a third party harassment complaint. Many organizations have begun to use a “Love Contract” that states these things and attempts to shield the business in the event the relationship ends.
SDEA can provide the verbiage for this contract – contact us if you would like to learn more.
Issue #4—Supervisors who Date Coworkers and Direct Reports
This is the most serious concern of all, when Sue Supervisor dates a coworker or even…a direct report! When one of the dating coworkers is a Supervisor or member of Management, the business may find itself exposed to a classic “quid pro quo” (this for that) Harassment claim during or after the relationship. For this and many other reasons, Management needs to engage and act more quickly in these cases.
First and foremost, meet with the Supervisor or Manager privately to talk about any policy concerns, especially where a direct report is involved. Most workplaces prohibit or restrict relationships with a direct report. In that case, you’re transferring one of the parties to another job, or even asking one party to voluntarily resign. You don’t need an old-school “no fraternization” policy, but consider many of the most likely possibilities: Claims of favoritism, bias or discrimination; Sexual Harassment claims in the “quid pro quo” vein; Past practice conflicts if allowed to continue; Pay inflation and others.
This is a case where legal counsel should be consulted early and often.
Happy Valentine’s Day!