Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and that means big bucks for the chocolate and flower industry, impossible-to-find restaurant reservations, an uptick in marriage proposals and…potential workplace sexual harassment allegations?
That’s the fear of HR departments and employers across the country at least. Valentine’s Day is seen by some as the perfect opportunity to tell that colleague how one feels or to make some kind of romantic gesture. But these gestures aren’t always welcome, and what might be awkward in a personal setting can cross the line into harassment in workplace settings.
At the same time, millions of Americans do find romance at work. In fact, while the number of workers who find love in the office has declined in recent years—perhaps due in part to the widespread shift to remote work—roughly one in ten people still find that special someone at work.
This means that it’s probably not realistic for employers to strictly prohibit all workplace romance. But employers can and should have policies in place to address the potential negative consequences of office romances.
We reached out to employers, HR professionals and other experts to get their insights on how businesses can best navigate the complicated world of office romance.
What Are the Biggest Risks with Office Romances?
Sexual harassment tends to be top of mind when most people think about the risks of workplace relationships. Of course, sexual harassment is a very real problem and something all employers have a legal, moral, and professional obligation to take very seriously.
But sexual harassment isn’t the only potential pitfall, and often sexual harassment isn’t necessarily the primary concern when we’re talking about consensual office relationships.
The general complexities and challenges of romance don’t go away just because that romance happens in the workplace. For example, while romantic involvement may actually increase team cohesion and cooperation in some situations, it can also lead to awkward tensions if the relationship turns south.
“Big problems come if the couple separates as one of the two elements of the team may leave the company, this represents turnover and loss of talent,” says Victor Anaya, CEO and co-founder of Serviap Global, which provides global EOR and recruitment services. “If they both stay, on the other hand, there may be some difficult interactions and an uncomfortable atmosphere ahead, especially if professionality is not maintained.”
Additionally, relationships don’t exist in a vacuum, and they often impact those not directly involved in the relationship. Manager-subordinate romance can be particularly challenging, as they easily lead to impressions of favoritism. Even relationships not involving different seniority levels can lead to jealousy from other colleagues or simply make coworkers feel uncomfortable.
Should Companies Prohibit Office Romances Altogether?
Kyle Cupp, manager of content services strategy at HR and compliance consultancy Mineral, says there really is no one-size-fits-all policy for businesses, although there are some important red lines.
“How organizations handle workplace romances is mostly up to that organization’s preference or policy,” he says. “Mineral recommends that, at a minimum, organizations should not permit any sexual behavior in the workplace, and should prohibit relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Some organizations prefer to ban office dating, but this is difficult or impossible to enforce. It’s often not worth the time and effort, and can create a Big Brother-like feeling, which reduces trust between management and employees.”
Kupp acknowledges that some companies do opt to take an extra-conservative approach and prohibit workplace romance altogether, but there are risks with this approach too. “For organizations who do decide to prohibit all office dating, Mineral recommends that they be mindful of how they phrase their policy,” Kupp says. “Outright ‘non-fraternization’ policies have the potential to violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. Mineral recommends language that specifically refers to ‘employee dating.’”
What Specific Policies Should Companies Have in Place if They Do Allow Dating in the Office?
It’s impossible to provide a complete playbook for every company when it comes to office romances, but a few basic principles should apply for any organization.
Anaya recommends the following as a starting point:
- Always maintain professionalism.
- Establish the necessary rules for healthy coexistence with other colleagues.
- Do not discuss personal matters within the office.
- Do not getting romantically involved with the boss or subordinates.
Whatever policies a company implements, it’s critical that they are clearly and consistently communicated throughout the organization. A company faced with romantically involved employees accused of violating policies they say they weren’t aware of hasn’t done its duty in setting clear guardrails.
How Does Remote Work Impact the Situation?
Remote work adds an entirely new element to the office romance dynamic. On the one hand, remote work might create less opportunity for workplace romance, as the data references above seem to suggest. On the other hand, remote work means more personal communication might take place over company-hosted telecommunications tools, like email and chat apps, and it potentially makes it more difficult to police office dating policies.
“Remote work complicates the issue because it removes the employees from the closely monitored office environment,” says Tory Gray, founder & CEO of the SEO consulting firm The Gray Dot Company. “With less transparency, you can’t necessarily determine whether employees are following workplace relationship policies—or even informing you when one develops. It’s easier to hide the relationship and the improper conduct surrounding it. It’s also easier for other employees to assume those relationships are unfairly causing them to miss out on professional opportunities.”
In any case, we recommend communicating to all employees your organization’s relevant workplace policies and expectations. These policies and expectations should also be in the employee handbook.
While Valentine’s Day might make the issue of workplace romance top of mind, employers shouldn’t limit their diligence around workplace sexual harassment and other potential issues arising from office dating to the middle of February. Having clear and consistent policies in place regarding workplace relationships is crucial for avoiding the thorny issues that such relationships can create.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.