Workplace relationships have become increasingly common and more socially acceptable (who didn’t love Jim and Pam from The Office?). Given the amount of time people spend at work and with their colleagues, it’s natural that personal relationships will develop. In fact, a 2014 survey by Vault.com revealed that 56 percent of male and female business professionals in the U.S. have been involved in an office romance. While many employers fear the potential legal repercussions of workplace romances, Alia S. Wynne, a management-side employment attorney in Fisher & Phillips’ Houston office, recommends that a balanced approach with clearly defined policies will help ensure that Cupid’s arrows don’t leave them wounded.
“The most common fear is that workplace romances will lead to harassment lawsuits,” said Wynne.
To reduce exposure to harassment claims, some employees are required to report any romantic relationships with coworkers and sign so-called “love contracts” acknowledging that their relationship is consensual. Others are banned from dating coworkers altogether.
But Wynne warns that these steps might not be as effective as employers hope. “The value of love contracts is limited because they only establish that the employee freely consented to the relationship at that precise point in time,” said Wynne. “Many harassment complaints stem from relationships that were consensual in the beginning, but then changed.”
And employers may find themselves uncomfortably entangled with employees’ personal lives by trying to enforce dating rules, which employees will likely circumvent by hiding their relationships. Nevertheless, there are some love matches that should be avoided.
According to Wynne, “Employees in direct reporting roles should not be dating, and extra precautions should be taken when subordinates date supervisors, even when they don’t work together.”
Wynne recommends that the following can help keep employers’ heartache at bay:
- Provide Rules of Engagement – It may not be necessary for employers to adopt rules specific to workplace dating if they already have policies that address professional conduct, prohibit sexual harassment, and require employees to report sexual harassment. If an employee’s romantic involvement has a negative effect on job performance or the work environment, those issues can typically be addressed within the context of a harassment or conduct policy. But depending on the size and culture of the company, some employers will also want to provide more detailed guidance, particularly if they are concerned that romantic involvements between employees in the same department or in the same reporting hierarchy might affect productivity or morale. Alternatively, employee dating can be addressed in anti-nepotism or conflict of interest policies.
- Have a Heart to Heart – Sometimes when love blooms in the workplace, so do jealousy and resentment. In those cases, employers can help minimize ill will by counseling couples to be sensitive to the feelings of their coworkers. They should be careful to avoid anything that creates the perception of special treatment, and also intimacy (or bickering) that could make others uncomfortable.
- Let Love In – Sometimes, coworkers’ chatter regarding a budding romance has a more detrimental effect on the workplace than the relationship itself, and can potentially become harassment. While employees should feel free to bring any concerns of favoritism or inappropriate conduct to the attention of management, they should be advised that mean-spirited gossip or idle speculation is not appropriate in the workplace.