Workplace Romances: 3 Reasons Why You Need a Policy

Do you know that 10% of your employees may be in a relationship with a co-worker?*

How do you think your surrounding employees feel about these workplace romances?*

  • 33% disapprove of the relationships between supervisors and subordinates
  • 30% say that if co-workers collaborate on projects, they shouldn’t collaborate on anything else
  • 24% believe that colleagues in the same department shouldn’t date
  • 6% feel it is totally unacceptable

I was one of those ten percenters who married my co-worker. We worked in separate functions, Human Resources (HR) for me and Operations for him. We agonized over how to handle the situation and once we knew our romance was serious, we disclosed our relationship as we didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable and we asked for honest feedback to ensure we maintained our professional demeanor. I eventually left the organization as working together wasn’t good for our relationship and he had the best future with the organization.

AND guess what? The reason for our agonizing early on was that the organization didn’t have a dating or nepotism policy to guide us. We simply didn’t know how to handle the situation. We thought it would be okay as it was a family business and relationships were going on everywhere. In fact, the owner married one of his employees when the organization was in it’s infancy. The absence of a policy addressing workplace romance is very common. Fortunately for us and the organization, our relationship didn’t cause an issue. I’ve come to learn over my career in HR that this is not always the case and sorting out the situation could be very costly for an organization.

If you’re a business owner or head of HR, I recommend managing workplace romance rather than prohibiting these relationships. If you are a small company, you have an even greater challenge when your employees have overlapping responsibilities. I assert that the best place to start is with a clear policy and here’s why:

Not all relationships end well

We’ve all had a relationship that ended on a low note and we may not have handled it well. Ending relationships can be very emotional and having to see your former love interest at work each day can make it even more challenging. I experienced a situation where a senior leader was in a longer term relationship with a woman in another department. The relationship had been disclosed per the organization’s policy. All was going well until the senior leader started taking an interest in another lady. He eventually ended the relationship with the first woman, who became unprofessional, emotional and difficult to work with. We eventually helped her to leave the organization to find a new role. Managing this situation took time and energy away from the business because our policy didn’t clearly outline the behavior expectations of the relationship; particularly when it ended.

Undisclosed romantic relationships erode trust

Sooner or later a romantic relationship will be exposed by a disgruntled employee or someone who sees the couple together outside of work. Andy Thiede, Consultant, KardasLarson LLC, recently shared this story. When the owners of one company I worked for learned that two of their highest-level managers were romantically involved, AND had purchased a house together without divulging their relationship, the owners’ trust in the two employees was diminished. Shortly after the relationship was divulged, one of the managers voluntarily left the organization. While leaving the organization was a good move for the one manager, the remaining manager had lost the trust of the owners. In fact, the owners had no confidence that the business matters they’d entrusted to the remaining manager were being kept confidential. They were convinced that business challenges and decisions were being shared with the romantic partner. Sadly, all of this might have been avoided if the organization had a dating policy focusing on disclosure.

Romance in the workplace disrupts productivity

Most often, management is the last to know about a blossoming romance. Employees pick up on flirtatious behavior and detect these relationships early on. Productivity suffers as speculation among employees occurs and in instances where you have a romantic relationship between a supervisor and employee, productivity can come to a halt if the work environment is being affected. This type of relationship is the most dangerous for your organization. In both my corporate and consulting experience, I have found that these relationships do occur even when you have a policy prohibiting a supervisor/subordinate relationship. I worked with a CEO who said, “you can’t legislate love, Leesa” when I was crafting this part of the policy and we worked together developing the remedies for this type of romance. Fortunately, we had a good size manufacturing organization and we could move one of the romantic parties. For smaller organizations, this may be a challenge. We both knew the joy of a workplace romance as he married his administrative assistant.

Romantic relationships expose organizations to claims of sexual harassment and hostile workplace

We know we can’t prevent romance in the workplace and we know that these relationships open us up to the risk of sexual harassment and hostile work environment claims. The best we can do is to manage the situation and keep in mind that it’s not just the lovers who can claim hostile work environment. Surrounding employees can feel uncomfortable when these romances occur. Even if the romance is going well, the behavior of the couple can impact the work environment. I’ve had to counsel employees on the inappropriateness of public displays of affection (PDA) in the work environment. My colleague, Lois Krause, Practice Leader: HR Compliance, shares a story on our current video of an organization that had a policy around supervisor and subordinate romance, and didn’t use it. The story features a scorned lover, a well meaning bystander and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO).

For more information on how to craft a policy complete with procedures and remedies, how to handle policy offenders and other nuances of workplace romance, please watch our current video (or watch below). We also encourage you to view our website www.KardasLarson.com on a regular basis for advice and information to help you maximize your performance.

*2016 Vault.com Romance Survey

Leesa Schipani
With 20+ years HR experience, her focus includes HR strategy, talent management, and customer & employee experience. Leesa has advanced HR certifications: SPHR, SHRM-SCP.

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