A Publication of WTVP

Valentine’s Day is the day of celebrating love. The question is: Should that love connection take place among co-workers? There are many reasons why organizations frown upon office romance. In the worst-case scenarios, accusations of favoritism or retaliation after breakups lead to wrenching harassment lawsuits; in milder cases, flirtation and affairs breed damaging gossip; and romantic liaisons—whether leading to traumatic break-up or blissful marriage—can result in the loss of valued employees. Given a choice, no manager would prefer his staff to be distracted by varying degrees of sexual tension.

According to Jan Lemer and Gail Zellman, authors of the Conference Board article, “Office Romance: Are the Rules Changing?,” executives and their HR teams must face the fact that not only are workplace romances here to stay, they are on the rise, and thus, they must do a better job of managing them to minimize negative consequences. Roughly half of workers have already had at least one office romance, and all trends point in the same direction: more men and women will seek dates and mates at work because the declining gender segregation of our labor force, informal socializing and casual dress codes have blurred the distinction between work and the dating scene.

How does an employer manage workplace romance? At the very least, consider a “non-fraternization” policy. This policy prohibits supervisors from dating subordinate employees who are in the supervisor’s direct chain of command. There is an inherent conflict of interest in a supervisor dating a subordinate. The supervisor will not be able to maintain objectivity when giving the employee evaluations or discipline. Even if the supervisor can maintain a neutral position, other employees could perceive favoritism stemming from the relationship and bring a lawsuit if they are passed over for promotions or their employment is otherwise negatively impacted by their supervisor’s personal relationship.

If your organization has no formal policy to guide you, you must rely on your common sense to provide solutions to the problems presented by workplace romances. Here are some suggestions from that may help you to arrive at diplomatic solutions which lessen the chance of sexual harassment charges.

      • Be reasonable. Without a specific policy, you cannot ask employees to not date each other. And even
         if you could, the prohibition would be difficult to enforce. Don’t put yourself in the position of making
         unreasonable demands on your employees or yourself.

      • Be fair. It is critical that you treat all employees exactly the same when dealing with issues of
        workplace relationships. Marital status should make no difference in the way you address a problem.
        Consistency is key to guaranteeing fair and equal treatment of a diverse workforce.

      • Be professional. When you must speak to employees about their behavior, confine your comments to
         a completely business-related context. Address issues of productivity, performance and proper
         workplace conduct. Leave anything personal out of it.

      • Be discreet. Don’t encourage employees to confide personal information. And remember to keep any
         confidential information that is entrusted to you strictly to yourself.

      • Be careful. Don’t attempt to implement a policy of your own where none exists. There may well be
         federal, state or local laws that apply to these situations and your company must stay in compliance.
         Consult with company counsel before acting on a difficult or sensitive situation.

      • Be proactive. Discuss the need for a written policy with upper management and show them how this
         can prevent both workplace disruption and costly lawsuits. And suggest training for supervisors on
         the subject.

If the office romance cupid appears at your organization this Valentine’s Day, you now have a treatment for the sting of his arrow. IBI