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Q&A: How to Handle Workplace Relationships

It should come as no surprise to employers that the workplace can facilitate more than just business relationships. It turns out it’s also a great place to spark romance. “Colleagues start with something huge in common, which is the work,” says Susan Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant. “They tend to be educated about the same, and they tend to be within driving distance.” But workplace romances can have huge implications for employers, with impacts on everything from employee morale to regulatory compliance. What do employers need to know about workplace romance to maintain a harmonious working environment while complying with all applicable laws?

How common is romance at work?
Surveys vary on this question but suggest that somewhere between one-third to over half of workers have dated colleagues at some point in their careers. A 2017 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey found that 57% of workers reported engaging in romance in the workplace, with a surprising number (31%) leading to marriage.

What are the main risks inherent in workplace dating?
Workplace romances are a potential minefield of employment issues. Even successful relationships can destabilize morale and the team working dynamic, especially if colleagues feel the romantic partners give each other preferential treatment. Unsuccessful relationships can lead to a breakdown in team cohesion and productivity and, in extreme cases, foster a toxic atmosphere amid accusations of harassment, discrimination, and more. These risks are amplified when the relationship occurs between a manager and a direct report.

Should companies have formal workplace romance policies?
Yes! Many employers are understandably reluctant to police their employees’ relationships, and fewer than half (42%) of companies have formal workplace romance policies in place. But there are just too many potential risks for employers not to address this question with a formal, documented policy.

Do workplace romances break employment laws?
A consensual relationship between colleagues is unlikely to violate employment laws in and of itself. However, if the relationship devolves into accusations of favoritism, preferential treatment, harassment, discrimination, nonconsensual activity, hostile work environment, etc., it can violate numerous laws and expose the employer to potential liability. Title VII, for example, imposes “automatic liability on an employer when sexual harassment by a supervisor culminates in a tangible employment action.”

What are reasonable requirements to place on workers regarding dating colleagues?
Many businesses – nearly a third – outright forbid relationships between managers and direct reports. Many employers also require employees to disclose any relationships to HR and sign a “love contract.” This is an agreement that establishes (1) the employees understand workplace policies regarding romance and sexual harassment; (2) they pledge not to engage in preferential treatment; (3) they agree to hold the employer harmless if the relationship ends; and (4) they recognize the employer’s right to make personnel changes (e.g., a transfer) if a conflict of interest arises.

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