A recent poll shows that over 40% of Americans have dated a coworker, making the topic of inter-office romance pretty hard to ignore. While you may be glad that your staff is finding happiness, there are several serious issues that can be brought up when employees start dating and employers should be sure to protect themselves.
Protecting against harassment
One of the biggest concerns with inter-office relationships is harassment. Employers should have a clear anti-harassment policy in place that outlines what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable. Such policies should clearly state that employees are safe from retaliation if they come forth with any harassment claims.
One option for employers is to completely prohibit relationships at work in order to reduce the risk of sexual harassment and related claims by instituting a "non-fraternization" policy. However, these policies can have negative effects as well. Most likely employees will continue to have relationships and employers won’t have the opportunity to lessen the possible negative results. Also such a strict policy is bad for employee morale as it makes the employer seem overbearing.
Subordinates and managers
Office romances are also problematic when an employee in a position of power dates a subordinate. If the relationship sours, allegations of retaliation or harassment could be made. Even if the relationship goes well, other employees may say the supervisor is showing favoritism. Employers should consider a policy against such relationships, or one that requires employees to disclose these relationships and sign agreements for solutions for if the relationship becomes problematic (i.e. one employee would be transferred).
A consensual relationship agreement, sometimes called a love contract, is a written document signed by two employees in a consensual relationship acknowledging the relationship is voluntary. These disclosures usually contain a reminder of the company's harassment, discrimination, and retaliation policies, as well as a clear acknowledgment that the relationship is consensual. These forms are a good way for employers to remind employees of their policies and protect themselves from future lawsuits.
Prohibiting inappropriate workplace conduct
No matter your stance on inner-office dating, employers should have policies in place outlawing certain behaviors that can make other employees uncomfortable and lead to harassment charges. Employers should have policies which clearly state:
- no overt displays of affection at work, including kissing or hand-holding
- work communications systems are to be used for work only – no personal email or voice mail using working time or company equipment
- employees must behave professionally and in a business-like manner while at work or all company functions
- romantic squabbles should be left outside of the workplace.