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3 Tips For Navigating Workplace Romances This Valentine’s Day and Beyond

February 12, 2021

Phoenix, Arizona

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, love is in the air – and possibly in your workplace! Consider the scenario below:

You work in the Human Resources department of ABC Corp., a small, 20-person company that has always prided itself on maintaining a professional, but fun working environment. This year’s Valentine’s Day lunch is no exception; the heart-shaped cupcakes and garland are just the right amount of “festive” and the tiny bottles of champagne were a nice touch. You’re about to retrieve the candy hearts for the annual candy heart scrabble tournament when you notice the CEO, Robert, and the Payroll Manager, Linda, leaning in for a kiss behind the chocolate fountain. For a brief moment, you consider pulling the fire alarm as a distraction, but it’s too late – the office gossip, Brenda, is staring right at them. Even worse, the Payroll Lead, Amanda, who was passed over for the Payroll Manager position just two weeks ago, is looking at them, too. Most of the employees at ABC Corp. are married, and you had never even considered that you might need a policy regarding workplace relationships. What should you do now?

With American employees working ever-longer hours, employee friendships and relationships are inevitable. Even the recent surge in remote work has done little to curtail these relationships. In fact, in many ways, remote work has led to more employees spending time together outside of the office, chatting on their personal phones, or even meeting at one another’s homes. Having a clear, thoughtful policy regarding workplace relationships is essential to preventing the myriad of problems that may be associated with workplace romance. Follow these tips for drafting a policy that will help prevent any “bad breakups” between your company and its employees.

Tip #1: Understand the potential pitfalls of workplace romances.

Many of us know a couple that either met at work or who currently work together. So how bad can it be? The answer is complicated. While not all workplace romances end up in litigation, there are several potential pitfalls associated with dating in the office. First, while a relationship between co-workers may start out as consensual, that can change after a breakup, potentially leading to sexual harassment claims and general discord in the office. Second, as we saw in the scenario above, relationships between a manager and a subordinate can lead to unfair treatment, favoritism, or even just the appearance of impropriety. Third, workplace romances can lead to a lack of productivity, including extra-long lunches, socializing during working time, and frequent joint vacation requests. For all of these reasons, it is essential for your company to maintain an employment policy that clearly outlines your company’s guidelines and expectations regarding workplace dating, before it becomes an issue.

Tip #2: Choose the best approach for your unique workplace.

Workplace relationship policies can take many forms. The size of your business, your industry, your company’s past practice, and workplace dynamics are just a few of the factors that can impact what approach works best for your specific workplace. That said, there are three general types of policies that are most commonly used.

1. Outright Prohibition against Workplace Romances.

People often ask whether an employer can ban workplace romances, and the answer is “yes.” One of the positive aspects of an outright ban on dating in the workplace is its simplicity. If two employees become engaged in a romantic relationship, one or both of them simply need to leave. Your policy, however, should clearly outline how it will be determined which member of the relationship needs to go. Can the couple decide together? Should the employer decide? If so, what factors should you rely upon when deciding which employee to let go? The natural downside of this type of policy, however, is that your company may be forced to terminate a valued employee. Further, some prospective employees might find an outright ban distasteful, which could harm your company’s recruiting efforts. When considering a prohibition against workplace dating, you will need to balance these potential negative impacts against the value of avoiding the types of drawbacks discussed above.

2. Prohibiting Romantic Relationships between Bosses and their Subordinates.

The second, and possibly most common type of workplace dating policy, permits employees to date, but prohibits relationships between managers or higher level employees and their subordinates, or anyone directly within their reporting chain. This type of policy has the positive effect of eliminating most concerns about favoritism and unfair treatment. Even when a high-level employee does not directly supervise his or her significant other, however, the high-level employee may have influence over other members of management. For example, in the scenario discussed above, even if Linda was removed from Robert’s reporting chain, his role as the CEO of the company may make Linda’s supervisor feel pressured to give her more favorable treatment. If you choose to implement this type of policy, it is important to define the reporting chains within your company, and you should also consider including express prohibitions against any employee exerting pressure or otherwise retaliating against others in the workplace based upon how the employee’s significant other is being treated.

3. Consider Requiring a “Love Contract.”

A “love contract” is a relatively new construct that is gaining in popularity. Under this type of policy, employees are given complete freedom to date co-workers, regardless of either employee’s position within the company; however, employees involved in a romantic relationship are required to inform their employer about the relationship and sign a “love contract,” certifying that the relationship is consensual and that neither employee will perform any act that might be seen as a “conflict of interest” based upon the relationship. Contracts can be modified to meet the specific needs of your workplace, such as by adding language about maintaining productivity and keeping the private relationship outside of the workplace, or by requiring certification that both employees agree to maintain the highest levels of professionalism if and when the relationship should end. “Love contracts” give employees the most freedom to pursue romantic relationships, but some criticize them as being too invasive and personal. In addition, the company must choose what happens if and when an employee violates his or her love contract. Will different types of violations lead to different types of discipline? If so, how do you prove a violation? You will need to consider these issues and do your best to address them openly and clearly in your policy.

Tip #3: Implement Your Policy.

Once you have decided on an approach and drafted a policy, dissemination of and training regarding the policy will be key. Try to help employees understand why the policy is necessary and how it will benefit the workplace. Then, once the policy is in place, enforce it. Unequal or sporadic enforcement of a workplace romance policy will erode the benefits of having a policy in the first place. By making your policy clear and tailoring it to your specific workplace, you should be able to avoid the potential pitfalls of workplace relationships by the time your annual holiday party rolls around!