Office romance is a popular trope for steamy romance novels and TV shows, but it can be a real nightmare for HR. Unfortunately, you can’t afford to ignore the problem, either.
A recent SHRM survey found that office romance has become more common since the pandemic.
- 33% of US workers have been involved in a workplace romance—up from 27% pre-pandemic
- Out of the people who had been (or were currently) romantically involved with coworkers, 77% never disclosed the relationship to their employer
If you don’t already have a policy on office relationships, then it’s past time to develop one. Here are the biggest risks your organization faces and the most important HR policies you need in place to protect everyone.
Biggest risks of workplace romances
Two, grown consenting adults in love… what could possibly go wrong? From an HR perspective, you need a policy that’s clear and consistent to reduce some of these risks.
- Sexual harassment
The #MeToo movement made it clear that far too many women still deal with unwanted attention. Unclear and inconsistent policies make it harder to respond to harassment.
Even when both parties are mutually consenting, the flirting, scandals, and gossip distract employees from their daily tasks. The drama of new relationships can cause a drop in productivity and oversights on important issues like safety.
Immediate rejection can be embarrassing, and working around your ex-partner can be even more awkward. Breakups are far more common than “happily ever after,” but not many new couples plan ahead to minimize the impact of a failed romance.
- Favorable treatment
Employees are quick to perceive (or imagine) favoritism and unfairness. A workplace romance can, in no way, lead to special treatment.
- Double the turnover
Following a breakup, some employees would rather find a new job, rather than work around their ex. Both workers may end up leaving for a fresh start, leaving you with two sudden vacancies.
Why not just ban all office romances?
Rather than deal with all the hassles above, it’s tempting to just prohibit all fraternization. Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent the inevitable. Rather clear regulations can help you prevent the worst case scenarios, at least as far as relationships affect staffing and liability.
Love conquers all
Well, it’s not always “true love,” but flirtation, casual hookups, and relationships will happen eventually in any decent-sized workforce. You can’t realistically enforce a rule against all types of relationships, and you don’t want to have to regulate communication and socializing outside of work hours. Support employee mental health by avoiding unrealistic standards and promoting services like counseling.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution
However you approach relationships, there are going to be gray areas. What about couples who started dating before joining your company? If your rules against fraternization are worded too broadly, then your policy might violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which allows for collective organization. When a forbidden romance blossoms, are you ready to enforce a policy that might drive away two valued workers?
Focus on bosses and subordinates
Random sparks are possible between peers and different departments, but romance between bosses and subordinates is far more dangerous. Consider prohibiting (or at least discouraging and tightly regulating) relationships that go directly up and down the hierarchy.
Get couples to sign an acknowledgement that the relationship is consensual. Have them confirm in writing that the relationship was never a prerequisite of employment, salary, job responsibilities, or promotion. Let them know that romantic relationships may close off certain job opportunities in the future, anywhere a promotion might cause a potential conflict of interest.
How can HR policies protect everyone?
HR doesn’t have to play the role of spoilsport. Reasonable policies can keep everyone safer in the workplace.
Nobody wants to be harassed (or accused of sexual harassment), but some people have terrible judgment about what’s appropriate or know where/when to draw the line. Outline policies with clear examples, and provide a refresher on sexual harassment. Add the training to your onboarding process, but don’t forget to explain any new policies to long term staff.
Relationship disclosure agreements
If you aren’t prohibiting all relationships, then you can’t ignore them, either. Even when romance seems like a lighthearted matter, make sure to always maintain your professionalism. As a general rule, do not discuss personal matters within the office.
Establish the necessary rules for healthy coexistence with other colleagues, and you can show by example how it’s possible to acknowledge the relationship without getting personal. Anyone who chooses to date a coworker is creating a lot more overlap between their personal and professional life, and HR policies should focus on how those relationships impact the workplace.
Workers who are romantically involved shouldn’t need to engage in PDA at the office, especially not in ways that make colleagues uncomfortable. You’ll need clear rules for the company property and work hours, keeping everyone’s conduct professional.
Other employees shouldn’t have to witness PDA, and an overly permissive culture can make it harder to flag unwanted harassment.
Encourage open communication
Without requesting too much information, make sure that employees know they are expected to disclose office relationships. You don’t want your staff trying to hide their relationships, creating more drama and gossip.
Clear policies should be explained to everyone during onboarding. Older employees could use a refresher to clarify how expectations and boundaries have changed over the decades in regards to office romance.
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