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Navigating Office Romances

According to a Society for Human Resource Management Workplace Romance survey of HR professionals, many employers are taking a hard look at workplace romances. More than twice as many employers (42 percent) have written or verbal policies on office romances than in 2005 when the rate was 20 percent. The survey canvassed 380 HR professionals from July 9 to 26, 2013.

Most respondents (67 percent) said the number of romances among employees had remained the same over the eight-year period during which the survey was conducted.

Companies realize they aren’t going to stop people from having romantic relationships, so explicit policies help them protect the organization from claims of sexual harassment, ensuring that there’s no favoritism or conflict that may hurt productivity and affect morale.

Most managers know that more rigid policies are not needed — this just drives romantic interludes underground. The situation calls for careful consideration, communication and commonsense guidelines that must be communicated clearly and frequently to staff.

Your policies should stress rules of decency, courtesy, and etiquette in a sensible framework. Let your company’s values and principles rule — a simple set of tenets. The underlying philosophy assumes everyone is an adult and can be honest and forthright. You may allow for consensual relationships but require that the more senior person involved in a romance disclose whether the relationship is between a superior and a subordinate.

Some firms make their romance guidelines part of their overall diversity policy. By asking the more senior person to fess up, the company can ensure the supervisor has no input into the junior person’s workload or raises. Policies seek to avoid distractions, subpar work, adverse effects on co-workers and conflicts.

Consider some of the survey’s most notable findings:

  • Fifty-three percent of work romances are between employees in different departments.
  • Nearly one-third (32 percent) are between workers of the same rank.
  • Nearly 1 in 6 (16 percent) can be classified as affairs because one or both people have spouses or significant others.
  • Fewer than 1 in 10 (8 percent) happen between a supervisor and a direct subordinate or between employees of significantly different ranks, such as a CEO and a manager.
  • More than half the respondents said that office romances had led to marriage or a long-term relationship.

Be prepared to address other problems that may arise from workplace romances:

  • Potential lawsuits. One party may claim that the relationship was not consensual and claims assault and battery, false imprisonment and defamation. If the plaintiff sues the individual and the company, it creates a potential conflict of interest between the employer and the employee and increases the cost of litigation — particularly if the employer is in a position in which the firm feels obligated to pay for defense on behalf of the individual.
  • Complaints of favoritism. When co-workers are involved in a romantic relationship, the perception of favoritism may damage office morale. Workplace romance can lead to gossip, hurt feelings and unfair advantages. This doesn’t create a healthy work environment.

Policies delineate prohibitions against the following:

  • Romances between employees who report to the same supervisor, or between an employee and a client or customer.
  • Romances between employees and competitor workers.
  • Public displays of affection and sharing of confidential company information between romantic partners.
  • Gossip among co-workers and drops in productivity from the couple and their colleagues.
  • Damage to the organization’s image because the pairing may be seen as unprofessional.
  • Threats to worker competence, demoralized co-workers, secrecy, a potential conflict of interests and, worse yet, claims of invasion of privacy and sexual-harassment lawsuits.

Employees are working longer hours in environments that encourage teamwork and familiarity. As work continues to become more time-consuming, less leisure time is available for outside activities, and workplace romances are becoming more common.

One of the best ways to prevent any sort of harassment is to articulate in your policy that if a worker experiences any discomfort, he or she should speak to a supervisor promptly. Contact us today to learn more.


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