Office romances happen, whether HR or management is aware or not. When they do, management and HR are often at a loss as to what to do. For starters, don’t bury your head in the sand. Here are 3 tips to deal with romance in the workplace. Happy Valentine’s Day
1. Have a sexual harassment policy.
Have a sexual harassment policy. And don’t just have one—have a well-written and updated policy. The policy should define sexual harassment. Unwelcome advances are sexual harassment. Employees should understand from reading the policy that having their romantic advances rejected once should be enough to refrain from further advances.
Things become trickier when a couple was dating and now is not. They still must work together. While romantic advances may have been welcomed at one time in an office romance, once they are not welcome anymore by one or both parties, they should stop immediately. Your policy should clearly reflect that.
Some lawyers and HR professionals advocate for so-called “love contracts.” Love contracts are agreements signed by employees at the outset of a consensual relationship that spell out the parameters for their behavior in the office and what will happen in the event that the employees breakup or either employee changes jobs creating a potential conflict of interest. These documents can serve as useful guidance to the employees, but they do not deflect potential liability in the event of a lawsuit for sexual harassment or sex discrimination. Use them with caution.
Consider whether more guidance can be provided in a fraternization and nepotism policy, making the need for individual discussions and love contracts unnecessary.
2. Handle break ups appropriately.
As noted above, once the relationship ends, as many will, management and HR should be prepared to handle the fallout. If one employee continues to pursue the other, the employee should be warned that his/her conduct is no longer welcome and a violation of policy. Off duty conduct may spill into the workplace. Gossip may ensue. The quicker an employer can intervene and cut off the distraction (or potential liability) the better. Ultimately, if one employee cannot seem to get over the breakup; continue to work peacefully in the workplace; or stop pursuing the other employee, the employer may face the tough decision of terminating or re-assigning that employee.
3. Forbid relationships between managers and subordinates.
The harassment, fraternization, and/or conflict of interest policies should clearly forbid romances or other relationships between a manager and a subordinate in the manager’s line of authority. Even if no unfair influence is exerted, the potential for it is enough to warrant avoiding the potential issue. In addition, even if no favoritism is exerted by the manager, other subordinate employees will view the relationship as unfair. Every raise, promotion, praise, or feedback will be viewed as the product of unfair treatment. That apparent conflict of interest is enough to warrant a blanket prohibition on relationships between managers and anyone in their line of authority. If one develops, either the manager or the subordinate must leave the company or transfer to another role where the apparent conflict does not exist—no exceptions.