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Navigating Romance in the Workplace

The majority of working adults spend more time with their co-workers than they do with their own families and friends. Accordingly, it is no surprise that employees sometimes become romantically involved. According to a new poll from the Society for Human Resource Management, 33% of U.S. adults are, or have been, involved in a workplace romance.

Sometimes those pairings lead to happy endings. A CareerBuilder survey of 809 working adults in the United States found that almost one-third of office romances resulted in marriage. However, it should be noted that not all office relationships end well. While there are certainly instances where workplaces romances are acceptable, there are times when relationships are wholly inappropriate. The most notable example of an inappropriate workplace relationship is one where a subordinate is romantically involved with a superior. The same CareerBuilder study found that 35% of female workers and 25% of male workers had dated someone at a higher professional level than themselves, and in some cases, their bosses. This creates the potential for intimidation, retaliation or sexual-harassment claims, as well as real or perceived favoritism.

Many employers now require employees to disclose personal work-based relationships, including those with contractors, suppliers, customers or clients. Known as “love contracts” these documents outline a code of conduct, and they require employees to disclose their status as a couple. It is important to keep in mind that while disclosure of voluntary relationships is good practice, these so-called “love contracts” are not a cure all. Often, employees will simply hide relationships from the company altogether.

While employers can deter workplace romances by adopting and enforcing anti-fraternization policies, they should realize that zero-tolerance policies are unrealistic. However, a SHRM survey found that 28% of employees involved in a workplace romance never disclosed it to their employer. Among those who did disclose a relationship, 32% said their company was supportive, and 29% said the employer was indifferent.

Employers should look at their current policies and ensure they are doing all they can to provide a safe environment for employees where unwanted sexual advances are prohibited. This includes focusing on training to recognize, report and prevent harassment in the workplace. It’s critical to have policies in writing, and such policies should be laid out in the same section as rules regarding sexual harassment. Not only will a proactive approach help your organization avoid a number of pitfalls, but it will also help avoid any awkward circumstances that may arise. For example, established rules about public displays of affection won’t just prevent employees from acting inappropriately in the break room/public areas, they’ll also prevent the perception that you made the rule in response to a specific PDA incident.

Workplace romances turned bad can become sexual harassment lawsuits; it only takes one reckless action from a spurned lover for a seemingly innocent situation to require legal attention.

  • Have a “dating and personal relationships policy” in place.

  • Encourage employees to disclose voluntary relationships.

  • Closely monitor romantic relationships that already exist.

  • Specifically prohibit Manager-Subordinate relationships.

  • Ensure that policies are applied consistently.

  • Communicate regularly.

  • Consider using a disclosure agreement.

Workplaces romances are bound to happen, regardless of the rules. However, employers can avoid drama and potential legal repercussions by proactively setting specific guidelines and clearly communicating them to all employees.

Disclaimer: Some information contained herein has been abridged from numerous sources and may be protected by various copyright laws. Such information should not be construed as consulting or legal advice. Please contact our office for specific advice and/or referrals.

The Author
Meredith Delia
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