All’s Fair in Love and War? Why an Office Romance Policy Can Protect Your Company from Becoming a Battleground.
They say love blooms in the most unlikely places. Yet, when your employees spend 40+ hours together each week, it is not uncommon for working relationships to blossom into relationships outside the workplace, in either a friendship or romantic nature. Employers intentionally hire applicants who have personalities that will interact well with existing employees, making them the perfect matchmaker. In fact, a 2017 Career Builder survey found that as many as 41% of workers have dated a colleague and that nearly one-third of those relationships ended in marriage. Meanwhile, about 5% of workers who have had a workplace romance say they have left a job because of an office relationship has gone sour.
Hollywood often romanticizes workplace relationships (is there a more perfect love story than Jim and Pam’s from The Office?), but as of recently, the #MeToo movement has shed light on a very predominant gray area in the realm of office relationships regarding inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment. Not only individuals, but companies are also being held responsible for the type of behavior that happens under its watch. What can you do to make sure your organization doesn’t blow up in a costly public scandal?
The fact is that romance will kindle at work, but there are things that both employers and employees can do to manage these situations. Implementing an office romance policy that includes these five essential elements can help protect your office from becoming a hostile work environment:
- Require disclosure.
While your employees may not want to “kiss and tell,” a confidential conversation between employees and a relevant HR professional is necessary to minimize the risk of relationship-related problems. The biggest risk in a consensual office relationship is when it involves a supervisor and someone who is a direct or indirect report.
Make it clear that intimate relationships between a boss and their subordinates are prohibited, and that high-level executives are barred from having a sexual relationship with any company employee. If the fallout of a romance between a supervisor and subordinate turns hostile, your company may find itself in the midst of sexual harassment claims as retaliation. Anytime someone in a relationship has a power position, it’s possible that the relationship isn’t truly voluntary.
- Create a “Love Contract.”
A love contract policy establishes workplace guidelines for dating or romantically involved coworkers. The purpose of the policy is to outline the professional responsibilities of those in the relationship and limit the liability of an organization in the event that the relationship ends. The agreement should spell out that the relationship is consensual and advises them of the company’s sexual harassment policies. It also should outline behavioral expectations, including the fact that any show of favoritism or disruption of the workplace can be grounds for reprimand or dismissal.
The contract should also advise employees to notify their employer if they break up and spell out behavioral expectations if that happens. For example, that the former paramours will not share their personal relationship details at the office and will conduct themselves professionally when they work together.
- Advise against PDA.
Public displays of affection, including touching, kissing, hand-holding or even winking can make other employees uncomfortable and will make your workplace appear unprofessional. Co-workers who see this type of behavior can sue if such discomfort is part of a hostile workplace pattern. Public displays of affection, even among consenting adults who are dating each other, can also create an atmosphere that encourages other employees to engage in conduct that can constitute sexual harassment.
This extends to online communication, too. Just as PDA is prohibited, so should romantic texting, email, or other use of company property to “enhance the relationship.” These rules should not only apply to work hours, but to all work-related functions including holiday parties and even trips to the bar with colleagues after work.
- Keep tabs on office sentiment.
Don’t ignore how the rest of your company feels about current office relationships. It’s important to check in with them and provide them with opportunities to tell their supervisors if they are uncomfortable or if a relationship is affecting the workplace. Make sure your employees know who to talk to if they feel a person is getting special treatment because of the relationship or feel the workplace is unfair. This could affect productivity and cause turnover.
- Get legal counsel.
It’s always a good idea to run any policy by legal counsel, especially your office romance policies to ensure that your company is abiding by all local, state and federal laws and regulations. Your attorney can help you craft a policy that helps protect everyone involved from sexual harassment while avoiding an unenforceable ban on employee relationships.
Creating an office romance policy is just one of the many topics discussed in last month’s Think Like an Owner Academy. To learn more about TLO, a management development trainee program that educates key managers on the general ins and outs of running a business, visit TLOacademy.com.