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Employers can’t forbid romance in the workplace – but they can protect workers

By February 20, 2020No Comments

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

So you’re a small business owner and you find out that two of your employees are in a romantic relationship. What would you do? What if you find out the relationship was between a manager and a subordinate? Or if – like what recently happened at a client of mine – it was a relationship between a married senior manager and an unmarried employee in another department. What would you do then? Well, you better think about it, because this is probably happening right now.

According to a new study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the University of Chicago’s AmeriSpeak Panel, more than a quarter (27%) of the 696 workers surveyed admitted to having romantic relationships with their work colleagues, and 25% of them said it was with a boss. About 41% have been asked on a date by a co-worker.

The report also found that more than a quarter of employees said they have a “work spouse” (whatever that means) and more than half of them admitted to having romantic feelings about the other.

There’s a whole lotta loving going on in the office. It’s sweet. But it’s also a challenge for employers, particularly smaller companies that may not have the resources to deal with the repercussions of a bad, inappropriate or even a non-consensual relationship if that happens.

“Employers simply can’t forbid the reality of romance within the workplace,” Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of SHRM, said. “Instead, they should reflect on their culture and ensure their approach is current, realistic and balanced in ways that protect employees while leaving them free to romance responsibly.”

The fact is that we are all human beings and when you put human beings together for eight or 10 hours a day stuff is just going to happen. But in the #MeToo era, companies need to be more vigilant about behaviors once deemed acceptable – or at least tolerated – in the workplace. Even the most well-starred romantic relationships in an office can end up stirring up all sorts of emotions and have a toxic impact not only on other workers but on overall productivity.

Workplace romances are certainly not against the law, but certain behaviors could cross an ethical line, and – if considered to be harassment or discriminatory – even potentially draw the attention of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as certain state and local organizations. Plus, an office romance that turns sour can turn into an embarrassing public relations situation. Case in point: when McDonald’s recently fired its CEO after news of his consensual relationship with an employee became public.

Although there’s no one solution to this challenge, there are certain models that I have seen work. For example, forbidding relationships between subordinates and their direct – or even indirect – supervisors. Conducting and committing to regular training on harassment (which is already required in California, Connecticut, Illinois and New York). Having a formalized procedure for reporting any potential incident.

Some companies have even required employees involved in consensual, romantic relationships to sign a “love contract” which, according to Susan Heathfield of the human resources website Balanced Careers, is “a required document signed by the two employees in a consensual dating relationship that declares that the relationship is by consent”. The contract may include guidelines for behavior and benefits the employer because it “makes arbitration the only grievance process available to the participants in the office romance. They eliminate the possibility of a later sexual harassment lawsuit when the relationship ends.”

John Lennon once said “everything is clearer when you’re in love”, which may be true. But having a few policies and even a contract in place to clarify the rules certainly doesn’t hurt.

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