Love at Work: Office Romance Policy Best Practices
It’s almost Valentine’s Day and love is in the air! Candy hearts, boxes of chocolates (my fave), and roses abound. And for this HR nerd, that means it’s time to review office romance policies! Did you know that 1 in 3 US adults has been in a workplace romantic relationship? This is according to a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
Understandable, really, considering how closely some employees work together in teams and projects each day. Sometimes, these pairings can even lead to wedding bells - Hey, that's how I met my husband! In fact, a recent CareerBuilder survey of over eight hundred working adults in the US found that 31% of office romances resulted in marriage.
However, sometimes workplace romances can go south, bringing down morale and becoming a distraction for coworkers. Or worse, resulting in possible legal exposure for the employer in the form of a sexual harassment claim.
I was an HR manager for a call center several years ago, and we had a situation where two employees had been dating, unbeknownst to management. One of the individuals in the relationship ended up being promoted to Team Lead. A few months after the promotion, I got a visit from the other employee in the relationship. He stated that the promoted employee was sending his direct reports over to his desk to ask him why they broke up, why he won’t return the other’s phone calls and texts, etc. You see where this is going, right? There was the involvement of other employees in a personal situation causing distraction and gossip in the workplace, of course. But then there was the more serious complaint of sexual harassment to deal with as well. If management had only known these two individuals were dating, we could have set expectations and moved them to separate teams.
So, what is the best practice when it comes to workplace relationship/romance policies? Should we just forbid office dating and fraternization altogether? In my experience, adopting anti-relationship/dating policies don’t work. Employees still date; they just hide it from their employer. In fact, according to that same CareerBuilder survey, 41% of workers say they chose to keep their relationship a secret at work.
In order to limit the significant potential for favoritism, retaliation and sexual harassment claims, it's best practice for employers to implement a policy encouraging employees to voluntarily disclose personal relationships either to HR or to senior management. This allows you the opportunity to factor in this information when making employment decisions. Additionally, your workplace relationship/romance policy should make it clear that on-premises behavior should be professional and respectful of other employees at all times, i.e. no public displays of affection in the office or on company time. Lastly, an effective workplace relationship policy will make crystal clear that romantic relationships between managers or supervisors and their direct reports are strictly prohibited.
In addition to a well-written workplace relationship/romance policy, all employers should have an anti-harassment policy in place. And if you are an employer in CA, CT, DE, IL, ME, or NY, a thorough policy and annual training is a mandatory requirement by state law.
If you need assistance writing or reviewing a workplace relationship policy, reach out to an HR Consultant (like me!) or employment attorney today!