Ah, true love. It lifts us up where we belong and takes our breath away, but it also creates quite the headache for Human Resources. From issues like workplace disruptions, allegations of favoritism, and an increase in sexual harassment claims, workplace romances are challenging to navigate and aren’t going away anytime soon. A 2022 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) showed one-third of U.S. employees are currently involved or have been romantically involved with a co-worker, which is up from the 27 percent who reported workplace romances before the COVID public health crisis began.
While navigating workplace romances is one of the most challenging tasks for HR, it’s an inevitable one that all employers need to be prepared for. Here are some considerations for employers preparing for this rising trend.
Have a formal policy
While love is a splendid thing, having a formal policy on office relationships (often called “Non-Fraternization” policies) helps to set expectations for employees and provide guidance for what is appropriate in the workplace. How detailed and strict of a policy is dependent on a number of factors including company size and culture, so employers should be prepared to take time to really focus on what’s most crucial for their type of organization. No matter what direction you go in, the most important thing is to enforce the policy consistently for all employees.
Encourage open communication
Open communication is important in every company and has an impact on employee well-being, productivity, and overall company culture. Fostering trust and openness consistently in the workplace may encourage employees to feel more comfortable discussing any challenges or sensitive situations they’re involved in, including an office relationship.
Don’t try to ban all romances
It’s tempting to prohibit all office romances, but it’s not very realistic. Love will find a way either in secret or with employees exiting the organization. Both scenarios put employers in a tough situation. Secret office romances can result in lying and deception, while finding and retaining good talent is a major challenge for employers. Add to this that relationships are nuanced. How do you define and describe every type of conduct you want prohibited? Instead of banning all intra-office relationships, HR professionals and employment attorneys agree that the strict rule to follow is to prohibit relationships between managers and their direct reports, and executives with any subordinate, even if they don’t work in the same division.
This should be a given, but proper documentation is essential when handling instances of workplace relationships. Some businesses have even adopted so-called “love contracts”, where employees sign a document acknowledging they’re in a consensual relationship and agree to certain standards of how they will conduct themselves around the office. While this may be helpful for employers, it can make employees more hesitant to disclose a workplace relationship and may not be an effective tool for some organizations. Either having employees verbally disclose they are in a relationship or having emails/chats as documentation can help to mitigate risk exposure for the company if a non-subordinate relationship ends badly. Even if mutual, a supervisor-subordinate relationship will always bring risk.
Proactive measures employers can take
As an employer, you can proactively try to protect your company from harassment claims by laying groundwork in three areas: policies, procedures, and training. Sounds boring, we know, but you’ll be glad you did.
- Update policies in your employee handbook. At minimum, it should address harassment, discrimination, and non-retaliation. Optional policies include Conflict of Interest (to address relationships with third parties such as vendors and clients) and Employee Dating and Personal Relationships, such as Non-Fraternization.
- Outline procedures for handling complaints. Your handbook should also explain how procedures surrounding complaints, investigation of complaints, and remedy/disciplinary actions will be handled. Consider providing an alternative for lodging complaints through Human Resources or an Employee Hotline in case an employee feels uncomfortable going to their own supervisor.
- Provide employees with proper training. Train your employees on the above policies and ensure supervisors are aware of how to handle complaints of harassment. Investigations must be prompt and effective, so be sure to have properly trained Human Resources staff or other resources available.
While romantic relationships in the workplace can present challenges, with the right measures in place, your team will be ready if cupid’s arrow strikes.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should first consult their attorney, accountant or adviser before acting upon any information in this article.