Romantic Relationships in the Workplace

May 10, 2016

Topics: Employment Policies and Practices

Employees may be using their smartphones to search for romance, but studies show that many of them will find it in the next cubicle.   This could be good – or bad.  Office romances could lead to happy employees.  They also could lead to claims of favoritism, sexual harassment and retaliation.  Should employers regulate office romances? If so, how?

One option for employers is to prohibit all office romances or liaisons.  Of course, such policy will likely require employers to specify which types of relationships are prohibited, which could require employers to inquire into the details of any office relationships that do occur.  Such policy could also cause employees to keep any relationship secret, (especially if they are wondering if their situation has crossed that identified “line”), thereby preventing employers from taking proactive steps to avoid potential negative consequences of the relationship or its termination.

For employers who choose not to ban all workplace relationships, it may be prudent to at least prohibit romances or liaisons between supervisors and their direct reports.  Such relationships could affect office morale if the supervisor favors, or is perceived to favor, his or her partner in making decisions regarding assignments, raises, bonuses or other terms of employment.  In addition, if the relationship is not consensual (or becomes less than consensual even if it begins that way), then the direct report – and potentially even his or her co-workers – may have grounds to claim harassment, discrimination or retaliation by the supervisor.

Alternatively, employers may choose merely to require employees to notify a designated manager or human resources professional when any workplace relationship begins and ends.  Such notification may be kept confidential, except as needed.  Such notification could allow the company to take any proactive steps (such as transferring employees or changing reporting structures) to avoid potential problems and to monitor the situation for signs of favoritism, coercion, harassment or retaliation.

Employers may also choose to institute policies requiring employees to act in a professional manner, and not engage in public displays of affection or sexual behavior at the workplace.

Another option is to require a so-called “love contract,” which requires co-workers in consensual relationships to affirm in writing that their relationship is voluntary, that they are aware of and will comply with any relevant company policies and that they will inform the company if and when the relationship ends.

Whether an employer chooses any or none of the options outlined above, the employer should have written policies banning sexual harassment and retaliation.  Those policies should make clear that unwanted advances and attention can constitute harassment.  The policies also should specify the avenues for employees to report any sexual harassment and retaliation.

Employers should include all of their policies in their employee handbook and, to help avoid potential claims, should enforce their policies across the board.

Finally, it would be advisable for employers to provide training for their managers and supervisors on how to deal with office romances.  Training likely should cover the company’s policies, how to respond to office romances or relationships, how to respond to gossip, what to do about public displays of affection or sexual behavior at the workplace, what to do about relationships between supervisors and direct reports, and what to do if the office relationship is negatively affecting morale or productivity.

When at work, employers expect their employees to be working.  However, people spend so much time in the work environment it is not unexpected that sometimes work friendships turn into something more.  By being pro-active, employers can try to prevent problems before they start.