Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and love is in the air – including at the workplace. Workplace romance is very common; according to a 2015 survey, 37% of workers have dated a co-worker at some point. While many companies maintain written policies on workplace romance, there is no real consensus on the most effective approach. Some companies attempt to prohibit workplace dating altogether, while others seek only to prohibit supervisor-subordinate relationships. Other companies require employees who enter into romantic relationships with each other to sign a document stating the relationship is consensual and voluntary. Still others have no policy regarding workplace romances at all.
With so many competing approaches to choose from, it can be difficult for businesses to navigate the possibilities and decide on an appropriate policy. Below, we discuss a few of the more common approaches to workplace romance.
Some companies require employees who enter into romantic relationships with each other to disclose the relationship to HR. Then both members of the couple must sign a document stating that he or she entered into the relationship voluntarily and without coercion, promising not to engage in any favoritism toward the other employee, and acknowledging the company’s rules regarding appropriate conduct. Such documents are colloquially known as “love contracts.”
The primary purpose of having an employee sign a love contract is to avoid claims of harassment or coercion that might be raised later when the relationship sours. But critics of love contract policies maintain that they have the unintended effect of encouraging employees to hide their romantic relationships. Clandestine relationships lend themselves more easily to allegations that the relationship was harassment-based than relationships that are conducted out the open.
Some companies seek to totally prohibit workplace dating. Others take a less extreme approach, imposing some restrictions but not an outright ban. Both types of policies are generally known as “fraternization policies.”
While imposing an all-out ban on all workplace romances may seem attractive to some employers in its simplicity, it is unlikely to be effective. The reality of today’s economy is that many workers spend more time with their co-workers than with their families and friends. It is thus inevitable that attractions and romantic connections will form among employees. An outright ban is, therefore, unlikely to be successfully enforced, and a policy that cannot be enforced has no value to the employer.
For employers who wish to exert some control over the potential fall-out from workplace relationships, a more tailored approach is to prohibit some, but not all, romantic relationships. Commonly, romantic relationships between supervisors and their subordinates are prohibited, since such relationships may result in other employees making claims of favoritism toward the subordinate or, when the relationship ends, the subordinate claiming sexual harassment. Employers that prohibit supervisor-subordinate relationships should be vigilant in enforcing those policies, by taking appropriate action when such a relationship develops.
Robust anti-sexual harassment policies
Many employers choose to forego maintaining a workplace romance policy, preferring instead to focus on preventing and addressing sexual harassment. These employers may believe that, while they have no real control over employees’ romantic proclivities, they can control their own policies, procedures, and response to sexual harassment.
All employers should, of course, include a section on sexual harassment in their handbooks. These provisions should prohibit sexual harassment, explain what it is, and provide methods for employees to report it. But including such a provision in the handbook is the bare minimum, from a legal and HR standpoint. Taking a more proactive approach can go a long way toward limiting potential liability for sexual harassment. Holding regular training sessions, for example, is one way to enhance a claim that a company’s sexual harassment policy is substantive. It is also helpful to allow employees to report harassment via several different avenues rather than, for instance, having them choose between only their supervisor (who may be the harasser) and upper management (who may be intimidating)). Ensuring that the policy is clearly and frequently communicated, rather than just another page in a handbook employees may never open, is another way to boost the effectiveness of these policies.
Employers concerned about office romances are well-advised to give their policies careful thought. While it is true that “the heart wants what the heart wants,” that does not mean that employers have no say when it comes to workplace romance. Adopting an appropriate, pragmatic workplace romance policy may well save an employer from future heartache.
Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates, Inc. is here to answer any questions you have regarding this matter. Please keep in mind that in addition to our staff of seasoned HR professionals, we also have affiliated employment lawyers on hand to address any questions you may have regarding compliance. Contact us at 800-921-2195 or 516-921-3400.
This article is intended for general information only and should not be construed as legal advice.