It’s all too common for people to start dating in the workplace. Sometimes workplace relationships lead to marriage, other times they turn out to be a mistake. For organizations, workplace romances can be particularly problematic. While employers have few rights to fully prohibit coworkers from dating, there are some policies every company should have in place to protect workers as well as the organization from the risk that consensual relationships may turn into sexual harassment claims.
How prevalent are workplace relationships?
In a recent survey, CareerBuilder found office romances were down slightly over the past decade. Their 2018 Valentine’s Day survey revealed 36% of workers report dating a colleague, down from 40% in 2008. While that may be good news for employers, 22% of workers admitted they dated their boss, up from 15% in 2017. While 41% of those involved in an office romance kept it a secret, a disturbing statistic is that 10% of women whose romance ended badly quit their job.
Potential for sexual harassment
While consenting adults certainly have the right to privacy, workplace relationships often blur the line between personal and private lives. This can lead to sexual harassment on the job. A couple may be having a meaningful office romance (and 31% of these lead to marriage, according to CareerBuilder’s survey), but coworkers might be uncomfortable with the frequent PDAs (public displays of affection) or perceived favoritism. While most states have privacy laws that bar employers from prohibiting staff from engaging in legal activities off the clock, organizations can set ground rules that don’t infringe on employee privacy, while maintaining a professional, non-hostile work environment.
Crafting a Personal Relationship Policy
While consensual relationships are generally not sexual harassment, they can, however, involve complicated issues such as favoritism, conflicts of interest and breakups. Someone’s persistence to continue the relationship after the breakup can create a hostile work environment for the co-worker.
Before a workplace relationship becomes a problem, it’s best practice to develop a policy that sets standards for employee interpersonal connections. A written policy should set guidelines for employee behavior on and off the job, expectations of what is (and isn’t) professional conduct, and when, if at all, it’s necessary to report the relationship.
Here are some points to consider:
- In line with the company’s overall sexual harassment policy, all forms of harassment are prohibited. Irrespective of the consensual nature of the relationship, the potential for harassment between the parties exists. Professional behavior on and off the job is expected from all employees.
- Conduct on the clock: Employees are expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times while on the job. This requires behavior that does not create a hostile work environment for persons in the relationship, or others who witness their relationship, nor infringe on productivity. This includes conduct in non-work areas, such as lunch and break areas, and parking facilities, as well as off-site meetings, conferences or company-sponsored social events.
- Conduct off the clock: Sexual harassment during non-business hours, between employees engaged in a potential, current or past relationship, or those who are not, is prohibited in all forms. This includes stalking, phone calls, cyber-stalking or harassment and other behavior that might result in a hostile work environment.
- Fraternizing between supervisors and direct reports: Some companies may prohibit or discourage relationships between supervisors and their direct reports or require that management-level employees disclose any romantic relationship with coworkers. Organizations may, at their discretion, determine whether the relationship creates a conflict of interest and may work with the employees to consider options to resolve any current or potential issues.
- Supervisory employees who engage in personal relationships with coworkers may be required to undergo sexual harassment prevention training, or additional sexual harassment training, as appropriate.
In the #MeToo era, a clearly written policy on workplace dating, that is enforced fairly and reinforced by regular sexual harassment and code of conduct training, can help protect all employees, as well as the organization, from the negative consequences that can arise from consensual relationships.