Office romances. What’s an employer to do?

Valentine’s Day is this week and quite fittingly, we turn our thoughts to the ever sensitive subject of office romance. And whether or not it’s company culture to frown on personal relationships in the workplace or to look the other way, they do happen.  Strong bonds develop when employees work long hours together— and nowhere is that more true than in the intense environment of a small business or start-up. Couple that with social media platforms that keep us connected to our co-workers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you have the ingredients for office romance.

So the question is, how should you handle it?  Look the other way in the hopes that either the relationship will be short-lived and others won’t notice or that one of the employees in the relationship will leave the company and/or department?  Or wait until the relationship turns sour and either you are dealing with a sexual harassment complaint or other employee relations issues as employees “take sides” or claim “unfair advantage”?  And what about employees losing focus on work projects as they deal with their relationship issues that have spilled over from their personal lives into their work lives?

ThinkHR recommends that employers consider the following practical tips in managing office romances:

  1. Recognize the fact that office romances can blossom in your organization, and alert your employees regarding your expectations for managing their personal issues outside of work.
  2. Review your company policies regarding office relationships.  Most companies have written policies that discourage or prohibit managers from dating subordinates embedded in their sexual harassment or ethics/conflict of interest policies, but most are silent on issues of co-workers dating.  Consider your company culture and the likelihood that you might be faced with an office romance that could lead to consequences where the employer loses the most at the end.  If you determine that the risks of this happening are low, then we recommend that you ensure, at a minimum, that you have a policy in place discouraging supervisor-subordinate relationships.  It can help to have it “on record” that you do not encourage romantic office relationships.
  3. While this might not protect you from liability in the event of a relationship ending badly where one of your employees claims that the end of the relationship includes on-the-job harassment or retaliation, some employment lawyers recommend creating a “relationship contract” or “love contract” between the two parties in an office romance.  While we do not necessarily recommend this “contract” because it is probably not binding in the true legal sense of offering the employer protection from harassment or retaliation claims in the workplace, it may provide the following advantages:
    1. It documents the fact that the two employees are agreeing that their romantic relationship has been entered into freely and without coercion.
    2. It reinforces the company position that the company has not approved or encouraged the office romance.
    3. It can also reinforce both employees’ awareness of the company policies regarding conduct in the workplace, sexual harassment and conflicts of interest.

The bottom line is that you know your employees and the type of company culture you want to nurture.  We recommend that you think through how you would want your employees and managers to handle the types of issues that arise with office romances in advance of actually be faced with the situation so that you are prepared and ready.

Laura Kerekes is the Chief Knowledge Officer for ThinkHR Corporation, a national hotline and online resource for small businesses seeking help in navigating the complex waters of workforce management.  Follow ThinkHR on Twitter and Facebook for daily tips or give them a call for live support: 925-225-1100.