Workplace romances happen often, and having a policy in place to help guide the process makes the situation manageable for everyone involved. A study in 2017 from CareerBuilder revealed that 41 percent of professionals have dated a coworker and that 30 percent of office romances have led to marriage.
Office relationships can seem harmless at first, but when the two lovers start showing favoritism, or if the situation involves a manager dating a subordinate–then it can quickly become a nightmare for HR.
Liabilities of Workplace Romances
When two employees begin a relationship, it tends to create office gossip, as everyone watches and speculates if the relationship is going to last. Gossiping among coworkers means less productivity and can bring judgment, complaints, hurt feelings, and negatively affect office morale.
Other areas of concern are inappropriate sharing of confidential company information between the two romantic partners, or the possible damage to the organization’s image if the pairing of the two employees is seen as unprofessional. The most common problem with workplace romances is if the former lovebirds clash after a breakup and harass one another while at work or file workplace a sexual harassment claim just to get revenge.
Creating a Policy
Antiharassment laws require employers to take all reasonable actions to prevent harassment in the workplace. The potential problems that can arise from a workplace romance may make it seem easier to prohibit relationships rather than to let them ride out, but unfortunately, the majority of employees will follow their feelings before they will follow a policy.
Designing a policy to allow office romances but protects the company against sexual harassment liability, and ensures a professional work environment, are areas to consider while writing the policy.
Here are some key components of a successful workplace romance policy:
State what is not acceptable–Define exactly what types of relationships will and will not be tolerated and why. Example: Dating someone you report to or who reports to you causes a direct conflict of interest for both of you–and for the company.
Make the consequences clear–Define what will happen if the policies are violated. Example: written reprimand, transfer, demotion, termination.
Address sexual harassment–State outright that any alleged sexual harassment will be handled in a legally proper manner and that the company has a zero-tolerance policy. Make sure to specify that sexual comments or public displays of affection, even if they are wanted, can be considered sexual harassment.
Encourage open communication–Request that employees disclose their relationship to HR if it becomes romantic. If the company is willing to work with the couple, then it is more likely that the lovebirds will communicate their problems in an appropriate manner. However, employees may also have good reason to try to keep their relationship secret. For example, a same-sex couple may not want to disclose their relationship for fear of scrutiny from their company or other employees.
Upholding the Policy
If it becomes clear that two employees are in a relationship, it is a good idea for HR to ask them to review the workplace romance policy in the employee handbook and discuss the official guidelines on office relationships.
HR can educate the employees on the various signs that an office romance is having a negative impact on the company (other employees feeling affected, or that the two employees are getting unfair advantages, etc.). Discuss how the employees are expected to behave professionally and that romantic spats should be kept out of the work environment. Review and reinforce policies on sexual harassment and talk about appropriate and inappropriate interactions in the workplace.
Consensual Romance Contract (Love Contract)
Some businesses allow employee relationships to bloom and have designed consensual romance contracts (often called love contracts) to help bring accountability to the happy couple. If you choose to create a consensual romance contact, include a copy of it in the employee handbook so all employees will be aware ahead of time of what the contract looks like and what it entails.
A consensual romance contract asks the employees in a romantic relationship to indicate that the relationship is consensual, that the pair won’t engage in favoritism, and that neither will take legal action against the employer or each other if the relationship ends. The contract should include information on the company’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies, as well as information about whom to contact for help.
Include information on inappropriate conduct and the expectation that the relationship won’t affect others or their individual work. Add specifics on public displays of affection and professionalism (such as reminding the parties to address each other by name, and not a nickname or pet name.)
An employer can’t force an employee to sign a consensual romance contract but can explain to the employees how a written documentation of their relationship can protect both them and the company from potential issues in the future. A consensual romance contract should be completed by the couple and reviewed by HR to ensure that the employees understand and can successfully follow the guidelines of the contract.
When single people work together and spend more than half their waking hours on the job, office romances are going to happen. Creating a policy telling employees they can’t eat food at their desk is much different than telling two employees they can’t have feelings for each other. Protecting the company from liability is the top priority, and if the proper policies are put in place and upheld, then the happy couple can live the dream and not become an HR nightmare.