3 HR lessons on how to manage office romances

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and love is in the air. But while images of hearts and happy couples are everywhere right now, some HR professionals are facing a conundrum: How should they handle office romances?

A workplace full of flirtation most likely isn't a productive one, but as an HR professional, you don't want to be the destroyer of love either. It is important, however, that workplaces have thoughtful policies in place to ensure all behavior at work is appropriate and that office romances don't interfere with job duties. In addition, these policies are needed to help protect employees from sexual harassment – and, by extension, safeguard the company from nasty legal troubles. 

Cupid might have your employees starry-eyed, but there are ways to effectively manage office romances. Here are three HR lessons to take to heart when it comes to love on the job:

1. Don't be a dictator 
Of course your company needs policies on office romances to help ensure safe, healthy and productive behavior in the workplace. Worrying about the implications of office love, however, can make some HR professionals rule with an iron first and ban dating co-workers outright.

Don't be that person, even if it's tempting. 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. This can ultimately create a sense of ill will that can lead to disengagement at work.

Instead, it's far more effective to create policies that govern behavior while on the job. like 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. 

workOffices romances shouldn't lead to unprofessional behavior while at work.

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. 

3. Put sexual harassment awareness front and center
There's no question that the #MeToo movement has exposed widespread sexual harassment in the American workplace. It's important that 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 talk about office romances should always include discussion of your company's policies around sexual harassment prevention. 

The three HR lessons above can help you effectively manage office romances in a way that protects employee wellness as well as the productivity of your organization.