Considering the amount of time individuals spend at their jobs these days, it’s no wonder that office romances seem to happen frequently. Spending daily time with people, working together on complex projects, trusting each other to do their part when challenges come in — these are all things that can lead to romantic relationships as well as interpersonal ones. As a manager, it’s incredibly important to be aware of the company’s policy on office romance, because when people mix their professional and personal lives, things can go poorly very quickly.
Why Care About Office Romance?
The term office romance includes any sort of dating activity between employees at the same company. It can cover anything from a casual date outside work, a one-time sexual encounter or an ongoing committed romantic relationship. While a company shouldn’t interfere with an employee’s time outside the workplace, the concern here is that when personal romantic feelings become involved, it has a very good chance of affecting the way those people are doing their jobs.
An employer’s biggest concern is keeping sexual harassment out of the workplace. Keep in mind that this term covers the obvious things like inappropriate sexual comments and persuasion by one’s superior as well as smaller things like two employees flirting or kissing in the workplace.
These smaller acts usually aren’t what employees think of when they think of sexual harassment, but it’s important to understand that they can affect other employees in the workplace who may be uncomfortable with them, which makes them a more indirect form of sexual harassment as well. Allowing employees to develop romantic relationships means there’s a bigger risk of a mistake that can set up a complaint that HR must deal with.
Office Romance Policies
Employers also need to minimize the risk of relationships affecting the individual employees in their roles. For example, employees in a new relationship may spend too much time talking with each other or exchanging electronic message on work time, which means their performance will suffer. The other big concern is the personal aftermath when a relationship doesn’t work out; ex-partners may find it difficult to sit near each other or work collaboratively, which can hugely affect morale and productivity going forward.
With all of the risk inherent in an office romance, why don’t companies simply ban them entirely? It is, in fact, legal in most states for companies to outright forbid office romances of any sort. The problem is, of course, enforcing it and picking up on office romance signs.
History shows that even with such office romance rules in place, employees will still try workplace relationships and keep them secret. This leaves the company somehow responsible for discovering romances and enforcing whatever consequences are defined in the policy, and that sort of scrutiny isn’t very legally defensible at all. Nor is it really a productive place for the company to spend money and resources on. In the end, while a full ban may conceptually make sense, practically it does not work.
Approaches to Deal with Office Romance
So what other options does a company have when it comes to developing an office romance policy? There are a number of different approaches to consider.
- Partial Ban: This policy looks to ban only relationship types that can threaten to become a liability in the workplace, such as superior-subordinate relationships or executive members dating within the office. While this doesn’t prevent such relationships from potentially developing, it does mean that employees in those kinds of relationships are subject to a reorganization, job transfer or even termination if necessary. Other relationships are allowed to carry on as long as they don’t affect the workplace.
- Blind Eye: These policies simply ignore romantic relationships unless there are clear effects on work performance. In cases like these, the workplace needs to have clear policies in place for discrimination and harassment, for cases where a power differential or other inappropriate situation may occur.
- Documentation: Employees dating are required to disclose their relationships to the company, usually via HR. In some cases they may be required to sign documentation confirming the relationship is consensual, and that they are aware of the discrimination and harassment policies. Often companies will add additional guidelines, such as not allowing partnered or married couples to work in the same department.
Legal Protection for Employers
A policy should be chosen that allows the company the largest amount of legal protection with the most reasonable amount of resources required to uphold it. Depending on the business, the company environment and the amount of corporate and HR support available, different policies will end up working for different companies. No matter which path makes sense, make sure that the policies are clear and that all employees have access to them.
Handling Office Romance as a Manager
Even with policies in place, it can be difficult to adjust one’s behavior as a leader or manager when two teammates are dating. Obviously it’s important to first understand the company’s policies towards office romance, to make sure all responses reflect the policies in place.
Remember that it may not be appropriate to question teammates who “might” be dating — unless their behavior is edging on inappropriate for the workplace or could cause a harassment complaint from other employees who may think it constitutes a hostile workplace. In that case, start by asking whether there is anything these employees would like to share and work with HR to ensure all questioning is properly handled.
What to Do When Employees Date
If an employee (or couple) willingly discloses a romance outside the office, the first thing to do is to thank them for their honesty and if company policy requires, connect them with HR to fill out any necessary paperwork. With some company policies, actions may not need to go further than that, unless it starts to interfere with performance.
In cases where the dating employees work closely together on projects, in ways where they may be responsible for each other’s work, it might make sense from a management perspective to slowly separate them until they work on separate projects with other individuals. This allows their work to remain independent of the relationship and avoids potential conflict if the relationship ends.
Importance of Being Proactive
Remember that if the organizational setup changes and employees in a relationship have a chance to end up in relative positions of power over each other, it’s best to be proactive and rearrange to avoid this. When an employee is dating one of their subordinates, it opens the door for legal repercussions; if the relationship ends poorly, an employee could potentially claim sexual harassment or some sort of discrimination. It’s an added complication that’s easy to avoid within companies with appropriate policies.
When it works out, office dating can end up being beneficial: it creates two employees who intend to stay in the area and ideally committed to the company in the long-term. That doesn’t mean companies want to encourage workplace romance, but it does mean that there are options besides an absolute relationship ban, which can be difficult to enforce and — in normal practice — doesn’t actually prevent office romance from happening. That being said, the best practice a company can take with regards to relationship dating is a hands-off practice that will protect the company with policies that are reasonable and enforceable.