Office romances are extremely common place and its no surprise when you think about how many people have relationships with co-workers. Employees spend a lot of time together, they spend time getting to know each other, and probably have some shared interests.
More and more companies have formal policies on office romances that were born out of love gone wrong and the litigation that ensued.
If you think that office romance only happens on TV or in the movies consider some statistics from a survey conducted by CareerBuilder.
- Four out of ten workers admit to having dated a colleague during their careers.
- 31% of those relationships resulted in marriage.
- 34% of employees reported having dated a more senior person.
So, while it does happen that some office romances lead to marriage - many go bad and can lead to lawsuits. Even if things go smoothly, relationships that are not "out in the open" can lead to conflicts of interest and gossip that undermines both parties and impacts productivity. If the relationship is out in the open, assume everyone is watching for signs of favoritism, improprieties or misconduct on the job.
Be Proactive and Document Your Organization's Policy on Office Romance
Whether the relationship is between a boss and subordinate or employees who are equal on the org chart, a good policy will help mitigate your risk against claims of sexual harassment or retaliation. It can also protect your company from public embarassment and damage to employee moral and productivity.
Like a good sexual harassment policy, in order to protect your company, you need to prove that you took two steps. The first is that you took strong action to prevent office romances from creating favoritism, sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. The second is that if a problem occurred because of an office romance, you have a response plan in place to stop any violation of the policy, investigate the circumstances and with no bias implemented the appropriate penalties that are laid out in the policy.
Guidelines For Setting Up a Good Policy
In a very simple world, you could simply ban romantic relationships of any kind. That just doesn't seem practical. Instead, be proactive and create a policy that spells out what is acceptable and the consequences for not following the policy which can include discipline or termination of employment. For example, relationships between employees who work in the same department may can be discouraged; and relationships between supervisor and subordinate can be strictly prohibited given that they contain specific risks.
You can also consider having employees that begin a relationship disclose it to their supervisors or human resources with the caveat that the information will be kept confidential.
Spell out behavior that will not be tolerated, i.e. public displays of affection, inappropriate conversations about their private lives while in the office.
While you can't legislate love, you can use this tool to protect your organization against a lawsuit. Basically, a love contract is a document that is signed by employees who are involved in a romantic relationship. The contract states that the relationship is voluntary and consensual, and that they are aware of your company's sexual harassment policy. This too should include what conduct is considered appropriate; that no preferential treatment will be given and finally that if the relationship ends, there will be no retaliation.
Like any policy, your "Office Romance Policy" should be included in your Employee Handbook which should be distributed to all employees who sign an acknowledgement that they have received a copy.
No one wants to stop anyone from finding true love - you're just trying to avoid landing in court.
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