Love Is In the Air… But Should it Be In the Office?

Eric Mochnacz
February 10, 2020
With love in the air and Valentine’s Day at the end of the week, it’s a great time for HR professionals to think about the potential for office romance and company policy relating to dating in the workplace.  When employees spend the majority of their day at the office, personal relationships are bound to occur, with romantic relationships a distinct possibility. Human Resources is in the unique position to guide the conversation regarding rules about dating at work, create a transparent work environment where employees can openly disclose a relationship, and equip everyone in the organization to manage the complexities related to love in the office.  

Ban it altogether? Probably not.

The first inclination is usually to outright ban dating at work.  Smoking and alcohol bans generally seem to do the trick, but this issue is a bit more complex because we’re dealing with human beings, emotions and and the biology of attraction.  As well-intentioned as an embargo on workplace romance can be, it’s simply unrealistic. Statistics show that dating in the workplace is a reality and companies need to be prepared for the implications.  Even taking these revelatory statistics into account, a blanket ban on dating among co-workers has the potential to create a culture of secrecy and distrust.  Rather, HR can develop policies, procedures and documentation that encourage openness (within reason) but also protect the company and individuals. By acknowledging that relationships may occur between co-workers, HR is equipped to guide the entire organization in navigating the intricacies of workplace relationships, in their duration and if they end. With this in mind, there are a number of things HR can do to address and mitigate the risk associated with personal and romantic relationships at work.

Understanding EEO sets the baseline

First, ensure that your EEO and anti-harassment policies are up to date.  With these policies in compliance, it’s a starting point for any employee, regardless of relationship status, to understand the appropriate and legal way to communicate with each other.  If every member of the organization is aware of the baseline expectation for acceptable behavior, based on anti-harassment policies, as relationships evolve, it will provide a context for any policies that HR implements when it comes to office dating.  Having current policies is essential, but how do you train your employees in them? Some states mandate EEO training; but even if you don’t work in a state where it is required, providing employees with a interactive, robust training on anti-discrimination policies further illustrates the organization’s committment to appropriate relationships.  Red Clover offers a virtual EEO training resource with the potential for on-site consultant support through a strategic partnership – read more about it here.

Supervisor-subordinate romance is out-of-bounds

Although a blanket ban isn’t recommended, there should be clear policies forbidding a manager dating a subordinate.  This type of relationship at work creates a conflict of interest for the employees involved in the relationship when they reasonably cannot be expected to give appropriate managerial feedback that supports business goals and that may create a conflict for the couple. It’s also important to clearly state that anyone in a romantic relationship at work cannot be directly involved in decision making related to their employee partner.  These policies not only protect the individuals engaging in the relationship, but also every other individual in the organization. It helps avoid any claims of favoritism, which can be damaging to the company’s internal and external reputation and adversely impact employee morale and culture.  

Clear communications is critical

So, what additional policies should you have in place?  Employers can require employees to disclose, in writing,  if they are engaging in a romantic relationship with a co-worker.  By having the individuals complete this acknowledgement, it provides the opportunity for a touchpoint for HR or the manager (with the guidance of HR) to review company expectations, provide a copy of the anti-harassment policy and confirm understanding.  The responsibility is also on the company to confirm the relationship is voluntary on both sides and the relationship is not a condition of continued employment. There can also be a case made for having a written policy acknowledging the existence of non-romantic, personal relationships at the office.  It’s always possible that siblings, spouses and friends work for the same company, so clearly outlining the importance of maintaining personal and professional boundaries among all types of relationships at work is key. A company does reserve the right to change someone’s work assignment, reporting line or terminate an employee if they violate relationship-at-work policies.  

Bottom line: solid culture will prevail

At the end of the day, HR professionals are key stakeholders in creating a culture of openness where positive relationship building occurs.  By developing policies meant to support the company and the individual rather than punish just the individual, HR is uniquely poised to curate an environment where employees are open about their relationships and receive support and guidance for maintaining those relationships in a way that doesn’t put the company at risk.  HR is also essential in keeping up to date with employment law and forging relationships with employment lawyers who can provide further guidance and insight into how to create effective dating at work policies that promote positive relationships and protect company interests and the integrity of the decision making process in the organization.    

Written By: Eric Mochnacz

Learn more about Eric on LinkedIn!  

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