Valentine’s Day is upon us, and love is in the air. But while images of hearts and happy couples are everywhere right now, when it comes to love in the office, HR professionals can find themselves in an uncomfortable position.
The impact flirtation, dating and relationships between co-workers can have on productivity is a concern, but as an HR professional, you also want to tread lightly when it comes to an employee’s personal life. It is important, however, that companies have thoughtful policies in place to ensure behavior at work is appropriate and that office romances don’t interfere with job responsibilities or performance. In addition, these policies are needed to help protect employees from sexual harassment – and, by extension, safeguard the company from nasty legal troubles.
Here are three tips to help effectively manage office romances:
1. Don’t be an office romance dictator
Yes, you need to have policies in place to ensure safe, healthy and productive behavior in the workplace, but banning dating co-workers outright is probably not the answer and would prove difficult to police. As HR expert Susan Heathfield said in a blog post, banning office romances outright will only encourage people to sneak around. Frustrated employees may also see this strictness as an invasion of privacy, which can create a sense of ill will that can lead to employee disengagement.
Instead, it’s far more effective to create policies that govern behavior while on the job such as a rule against public displays of affection. These restrictions emphasize that if relationships interfere with work duties, then disciplinary action may be needed.
2. Be extra careful about the supervisor-subordinate relationship
There is one type of intra-office relationship that may be in the company’s best interest to ban altogether. While it’s probably not a productive move for your company to forbid relationships between co-workers, supervisor-subordinate relationships are another matter. According to CareerBuilder’s 2018 Annual Valentine’s Day Survey, 30 percent of workers have dated someone at a higher level in the company than them, and 22 percent have dated their boss.
These types of relationships are a minefield for employers. If the relationship is going well, other employees may claim that the worker in the lower position is getting special treatment. And if it goes poorly, your company could open itself up to harassment claims and litigation.
Some companies ban this type of relationship, while others allow it but make the couple sign so-called love contracts, documents acknowledging that they’re both consenting to be romantically involved. Others still forgo the contract, but they will have the subordinate employee report to a different supervisor to avoid conflicts of interest. What you choose to do depends on your organization. But doing nothing is not a recommended course of action.
3. Put sexual harassment awareness front and center
The #MeToo movement has exposed widespread sexual harassment in the American workplace; as an HR professional, it is extremely important to ensure your company prioritizes creating a safe workplace for all employees. Make sure your HR policies on office romances are closely linked with rules against sexual harassment.
“Make sure your HR policies on office romances are closely linked with rules against sexual harassment.”
“I often see employee dating policies in completely different sections of the employee handbook than the sexual harassment and retaliation policies, even though they deal with similar subject matter,” said Rachel Ullrich, an attorney with FordHarrison, in an interview with the Society for Human Resource Management. “This can lead to disjointed, conflicting or confusing policies.”
Any communication about office romances should always include discussion of your company’s policies around sexual harassment prevention.
These three tips can help you effectively manage office romances in a way that protects employee wellness as well as the productivity of your organization.