Co-workers dating each other is inevitable. Some even fall in love and marry. But workplace relationships always bring the potential for employer liability in harassment and retaliation claims, especially for a relationship that forms between a supervisor and a subordinate. Colleagues hooking up can also hurt productivity and impact morale due to tension over complaints of favoritism, public displays of affection, and inappropriate gossiping among co-workers.
In a recent CareerBuilder survey, 38 percent of workers said they’ve dated a co-worker at least once over the course of their career and 17 percent reported dating co-workers at least twice.
About one-third said they ended up marrying their workplace paramour. More than half of HR professionals said office romances at their organizations led to marriage or a long-term relationship, according to a 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
According to SHRM, 42 percent of companies have written or verbal polices on office romances, more than twice as many than in 2005. About one-third of organizations prohibit romances between employees who report to the same supervisor or between an employee and a client or customer. And 12 percent don’t allow any employees to pair up. Nearly all employers with workplace romance policies prohibit supervisor-subordinate coupling.
‘Love Contracts’ and Other Options for Workplace Relationships
Employers fundamentally have three options when it comes to romance at work. Either banning the relationships completely, requiring that they be disclosed to HR immediately, or relying on training and trust to mitigate problems.
Most employers realize that a blanket ban on romantic relationships is unworkable and just forces relationships underground. Most require that relationships between supervisors and direct reports be disclosed to HR. This allows the employer to transfer one of the parties to another department if possible, lessening the likelihood of charges of favoritism or special treatment.
Once notified, about 5 percent of organizations ask those in a romantic relationship to sign a “love contract,” which indicates that the relationship is consensual, that the pair won’t engage in favoritism and that neither will take legal action against the employer or each other if the relationship ends. But this is not a popular option, according to SHRM, which reported that three-fourths of HR professionals consider these contracts ineffective and damaging to company culture.
Actions HR should take include:
- Going over expectations and policies with managers and employees during sexual harassment training. This is the time to let employees know that office relationships must be kept separate from the work environment, productivity expectations remain unchanged for everyone and sexual behavior and public displays of affection will not be tolerated at work.
- Making sure company policies are in writing and accessible through the employee handbook. HR should be careful to use language that doesn’t single out opposite-sex partnerships as the norm.
- Monitoring relationships for signs that they are truly consensual. If a relationship is found to be a result of coercion, the organization should immediately investigate for sexual harassment.
For assistance with this or other employee relations issues, contact CJC Human Resource Services at 212.584.4770 or firstname.lastname@example.org