Love is in the air.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Have you noticed that love is in the air and occasionally at work? So, what does your employee handbook say about office romances? If you don’t have one on employee dating, I recommend you develop one and have every employee sign it. This can be a part of your employee handbook or a standalone policy. Make it specific so there is very little gray area left for interpretation.
I attended a Human Resources law session last week titled, “You can’t make this stuff up,” and you really cannot. People that you believe to be mature and possess what is commonly known as emotional intelligence, will not act rationally when love strikes. I didn’t say lastly love but who can judge true love?
So how do you keep your company out of trouble when Cupid’s arrow strikes? There is no reason to make my employment lawyer friends richer. Avoid putting more money in the lawyer’s pockets due to irrational behavior on the part of one or more of your employees. Be proactive and have a policy to address romance at work.
According to a February 14, 2019, article in Forbes Magazine, more than 50 percent of employees have engaged in an office romance and most employees do not know what their organization’s policy is on office romance. The majority of employees keep their relationship secret whether they are cheaters or not and I doubt that surprises anyone.
Why do people get involved at work? Generally, it is for love, ego, or to get ahead. The problems related to a romantic relationship at work is not as much about the lovebirds as it is about the reaction from coworkers. Employees suspect there is or will be favoritism and there will be gossip and lots of it. Sadly, the gossip still falls on the females more than the males. If you happen to be the boss, you need to do your best to discourage romantic relationships with policies and to model appropriate behavior. The leader sets the stage for the culture of the organization and behavior of the employees.
You might try but you cannot prevent a supervisor from dating a subordinate. Personal relationships are impossible to prevent. My heart says one thing. My head says another. Very hard to get your heart and head together in life. Woody Allen. Need I say more?
What should be the basics of every dating policy? Physical affection is not acceptable at work. I suggest you use progressive discipline for this and start with written documentation, stating that it ceases immediately. Articulate in writing that if it continues, then either party may be terminated. Treat both parties in a similar fashion so you do not appear to be discriminatory.
Require employees to disclose a romantic relationship. You are allowed to determine if there is a conflict of interest or a risk of one. This gets really sticky and you should consider separating the two employees if one has the ability to influence the other’s future, particularly with regards to hiring, firing, promotions, performance management, and compensation. You may even have to transfer one or both employees. If they do not agree to a transfer, it may be considered a voluntary termination. Your organization is the main thing and, as the employer, you need to be able to run your business.
You can’t control what your employees do on their personal time. You don’t have the time or the money to have your employees followed to see what they are up to on their own time. However, a dating relationship between supervisors and their subordinates or between any of your employees becomes a legal problem when the relationship was not consensual. Dating in the workplace also creates polarization and your employees will become distracted whether they are the participants or observers. It also creates issues for those that know about an employee’s romantic relationship and they have to keep the secret. Secrets are detrimental to the mental wellbeing of those keeping them. The bottom line is it is destructive to the climate and culture and can often lead to the loss of key staff. You may not realize it but employees leave their bosses and if there is a lack of respect, then a good employee often will go elsewhere.
Have the employees involved in a romantic relationship sign a consensual relationship agreement. At a minimum, the agreement states that the relationship is consensual and then they cannot claim it was an unwelcome relationship. If you want the couple to sign a consensual relationship agreement, then you should also have a sexual harassment policy. Again, this can be a part of your employee handbook or a separate policy. If you don’t have a policy, then how can there be an agreement? After the agreement is signed, document the conversation when the policies were explained. Have both sign a separate agreement, like a prenuptial and put each agreement in their respective employee file.
Employ an experienced HR professional to write and support these policies and agreements. In the long run, you get more for your buck than always paying my friends the employment attorneys. Also, your HR professional should be the staff member the relationship is disclosed to and they can independently evaluate the situation and make recommendations to higher ups.
Relationships that do not work out can cause personal issues for those close to the situation. If the breakup involves coworkers then, many times, it may involve conflicts at work. Ever been close to a divorce? People choose sides and friendships often end. Romantic relationships at work may detract from the goals of the organization, thus costing the owner time and money.
At the very worst, you will face workplace violence or a sexual harassment lawsuit and a visit from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Your policy needs to remind all employees, especially managers, to act with good judgment, discretion, and compliance. Managers that demonstrate good judgment are more likely to get promoted. Workplace romances have the potential to endanger the organization’s reputation in the community, cause the loss of current employees, and cost you the ability to recruit future employees. Word gets around and it is difficult to keep secrets.
If you haven’t watched the Morning Show on Apple TV, then I suggest you do so. I am amazed at how art imitates life. Ask yourself, when did higher ups really know about the relationship and how complicit were other coworkers, including other females? Bottom line, workplace romance, even when it is consensual, can be very destructive to everyone’s well being, including the well being of your organization.
Where do you find sample policies? The Society of Human Resources (SHRM) and the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) A-Z Personnel policies online have sample policies on their websites. SHRM has a dating policy example and the TWC has a sample policy on their website that addresses relationships within the workplace. For example the TWC site states, in the area of employment law, you should not try to limit any and all on or off duty contact or relationships but you can impose reasonable limits on the relationships or conduct when the conduct threatens work relationships, jeopardizes work flow, or harms the employer’s reputation among its customers or in the community at large.
“Your employees are the heart of your organization.” Dr. Michele Harmon is a Human Resource professional, supporting clients in Texas and New Mexico that range in size from five to more than 3,000 employees. She is also President of the Permian Basin Society of Human Resources. Email: email@example.com