Love waits for no one—not even HR departments. Once those butterflies take flight, it’s incredibly challenging to rein them in. As an employer, should you be concerned about workplace romances? Office romances have a lot of negative associations—sexual harassment, toxic office culture, and decreased productivity, to name a few. Even if employers show little interest in their employees’ romantic relationships, they do have an interest in protecting their company.
Given the potential problems posed by workplace relationships, employers, especially those in a smaller office, should adopt a policy and set of guidelines to proactively address workplace romance.
Nearly 1 in 4 married couples in the U.S. met at work. CareerBuilder reports that 38 percent of the U.S. workforce has dated a coworker. The Society for Human Resource Management released even higher numbers. Over 43 percent of HR professionals reported romances in their workplace.
So, water cooler romance happens. What’s the big deal? Romantic and sexual relationships have been proven to cause many problems, including conflicts of interest, interference with the productivity of coworkers, and potential charges of sexual harassment. Known relationships can create the appearance of favoritism in project assignments or salary. Relationships between management and subordinates often open the door for sexual harassment lawsuits. Further, 20 percent of those who have dated someone in the office report that at least one person in the relationship was married.
As of 2013, only 42 percent of employers had a written or verbal policy on workplace romances. It is therefore recommended that employers take action in drafting a written policy. First, it’s important to define the terms “dating” and “romantic relationship.” Your policy should include: casual dating, serious dating, casual sexual involvement where the parties have no intention of carrying on a long-term relationship, cohabitation, and any other conduct or behavior normally associated with romantic or sexual relationships. It should explicitly state that the policy is applied in a non-discriminatory manner; it applies to couples regardless of sexual orientation and aims to protect both individuals regardless of sex.
Second, you should indicate your restrictions on dating and romantic relationships in addition to what relationships are allowed. It’s advised that employers prohibit supervisory personnel from dating or engaging in romantic relationships with non-supervisory staff. Romantic relationships should be disclosed to the human resources department. The HR department should determine if a conflict of interest exists or if the workplace will be negatively affected. It’s common for workplaces to require “love contracts” of employees engaged in romantic relationships. In such contracts, the employees acknowledge that the relationship is consensual and they are aware of the possible consequences if the relationship negatively impacts the workplace.
Lastly, address what actions will be taken if the couple fails to comply. Explain how your human resources officer will assess a relationship and what disciplinary actions can be taken. In most cases, failure to comply may include termination of employment. In all cases, consistency is key. Couples should be treated equally.
The heart wants what it wants. This is true even in the workplace. Employers have a responsibility to protect their company and their employees, which means they should have an interest in workplace romances. When cupid’s arrow flies, be prepared with a policy and set of guidelines that ensures healthy and appropriate relationships.
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