Since its conception in 2006, the #MeToo movement has grown into one of the top issues facing businesses today. A New York Times report in October revealed that at least 201 high-profile men and women in the United States had permanently lost jobs or major roles to #MeToo over the past year. In light of this, office romances – even just between co-workers of equal status – are now under greater scrutiny.
More and more, these cases are uncovering how damaging romantic or sexual intent in the workplace (especially between bosses and subordinates) can be. Not only that, the movement has caused HR professionals across the country to reexamine their definitions of “inappropriate behavior”, the impact of power dynamics in relationships, and the grey area between what was previously considered “harmless” flirting and sexual harassment. To lead you through these murky waters, we’ve put together a guide to office romances, their pros and cons, and your options when it comes to taking action.
Office Romances at a Glance
According to a survey by CareerBuilder, 36% of workers had dated a co-worker, and 22% of workers reported dating a boss. Respondents reported a range of outcomes from these workplace flings. On one hand, 31% of workers who started dating at work ended up getting married. On the other hand, nearly 10% of female workers decided to leave their job after a workplace romance ended badly.
Although trends show office romances are decreasing in frequency, employers should not take this as a signal that they are no longer an area of concern. According to Rosemary Haefner, Chief Human Resources Officer at CareerBuilder:
Office romance is experiencing a dip and whether it’s impacted by the current environment around sexual harassment or by workers not wanting to admit the truth, the fact remains that office romance has been around forever and will continue to be.
And Haefner raises a good point. The same CareerBuilder survey reports 41% of workers felt they needed to keep their romance a secret. Further, a new XpertHR report revealed that although nearly half of employees have had at least one office romance, only 5% of workers would willingly tell their HR team if they were in a workplace relationship. Clearly, due to the prevalence and publicity around this issue, it’s important to fully understand the potential impact to your business.
The Pros & Cons
From a “glass half full” mentality, office romances can have a variety of positive impacts on your team. For example, in a best case scenario, they can lead to greater company stability, loyalty, and workplace harmony. Increased collaboration and openness can lead to improved communication and innovation. Unfortunately, the negative effects of these relationships can often outweigh the benefits..
These potential downsides may include:
- Potential office gossip and disharmony.
- Inappropriate displays of affection at work.
- Decreased productivity.
- Improper sharing of confidential information.
- Risk of claims of sexual harassment, favoritism, and unlawful discrimination.
What You Can Do
Employers have a few different options when crafting their own employee dating policies. Just keep in mind that the option or options you choose ultimately comes down to what type of company culture you have. (Or want to have!)
Have No Policy
The first option is to have no policy in place regarding office romances. However, we would strongly advise against this. Although it may seem attractive to just “let things play out”, this can limit your ability to effectively respond to a number of high risk situations. Additionally, not having a policy in place can affect employee performance and morale, potentially conflict with your company culture, and increase your risk of liability.
At minimum, we would recommend prohibiting sexual behavior in the workplace. Beyond that, you may also want to consider crafting a policy regarding relationships between supervisors and subordinates.
Consensual Relationship Agreements
Your next option is to permit dating of colleagues, but require the involved parties to sign a consensual relationship agreement. These “love contracts” provide written acknowledgment that the relationship is voluntary and consensual. (Additionally, if an employee refuses to sign, it may be a signal to investigate further. You may discover the relationship is not as consensual as you may have thought!)
These agreements also establish a commitment that neither the relationship nor its termination will affect job performance, violate company policies, or create any conflicts of interest. Although they do not prevent harassment claims or lawsuits, these agreements do document that the employees understand it is their responsibility to maintain a professional working relationship.
Top Tip: Looking to add a Consensual Relationship Agreement to your own organization’s HR toolkit? Not to worry! We’ve already crafted a perfectly compliant agreement that’s just waiting for you to insert your own company information. Simply log in to the HR Support Center to download your copy today!
Only Prohibit Dating Between Supervisors and Subordinates
The third option is to only prohibit office romances between supervisors and subordinates. Even if these relationships are consensual, they can still run serious risks. For a few examples, these situations can lead to conflicts of interest, result in sexual harassment claims, and create the perception of favoritism. And if we’ve learned anything from #MeToo, it’s that these relationships can ruin careers.
The imbalance of power in the relationship has the potential to enable the supervisor to make continuation of the relationship or acquiescence to certain behaviors a condition of employment. This is the last thing you would want in your company, so it’s important to take precautions to protect yourself from it happening.
Prohibit All Dating
As a final solution, you can prohibit all dating within your organization. Similar to having no policy at all, this option is at first attractive due to its simplicity. However, we would not recommend it. As we’ve already discussed, office romances are everywhere. These relationships are a natural outcome from people working long hours in close proximity. And despite what we tell ourselves, prohibiting these relationships won’t actually stop them from happening. On the contrary, this type of policy only serves to encourage secrecy.
Top Tip: Be conscious of how you phrase your company dating policy. For example, outright “non-fraternization” policies have been found to violate section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. This act protects employee rights to engage in concerted activity. Simply using the word “fraternize” without any clarification has been viewed as discouraging employees from exercising their rights.
The Right Choice For Your Business
Whichever option (or options!) you choose, be sure to place an emphasis on creating an environment of trust. Remind yourself and your teams that these relationships are bound to happen, and are unpredictable by nature. It is very important to make your workplace an open environment where employees feel free to come to you.
Our team of licensed HR professionals would be happy to work with you to craft a policy that is right for your organization. Or, you can find a standard policy on Employee Dating in our HR Support Center. Have specific questions or want a more hands-on approach to your company relationships? Let us know here to receive information about our proactive HR options!
What do you think?
Let us know in the comments below your experiences with office romances. Do you already have a policy in place? Which of the four options in this article makes the most sense to you? Don’t forget to log on to your HR Support Center for full access to our entire library of policies, employment laws, checklists, and more. And be sure to check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for even more HR tips & tricks!