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Dating in the Workplace: Fiancé or Fired?

(by Derek Ross)

It’s no secret that dating in the workplace has been a topic of much controversy and debate for years, leaving employees and their respective employers unsure of how to define this gray area in the workplace. According to CareerBuilder’s 2018 Valentine’s Day survey, 36% of employees have dated a coworker with a staggering 30% of those relationships involving employees who were at different levels within the organization. Furthermore, the national survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder showed that 31% of these office romances lead to marriage.

If you consider that employees spend an average of 8-10 hours together in the workplace, the percentage of office romances is not surprising. Though these relationships are common and often inevitable, organizations are not left helpless. Measures can be taken to address the risks that come from office romances, no matter how the story ends. Whether small or large, organizations should consider all options when creating a policy about dating in the workplace.

Some employers choose to ban romantic relationships all together because of past experiences including:

  • Employees not hitting production numbers because they are concentrating on the relationship rather than the duties of their job.
  • Low morale because team members fear favoritism when it comes to leaders dating their employees.
  • Sexual harassment claims that have resulted from relationships gone bad, especially when one of the two has authority over the other.

Though it is legal to fully prohibit employees from dating, it is important to check state and local laws before adopting a policy. For example, California courts have ruled that the state constitution provides broader privacy protection in employment matters.

On the flip side:

Some companies allow dating in the workplace since banning any romantic involvement can come with its own consequences. After all, it’s not uncommon for individuals to meet their significant other at work. Prohibiting employees from becoming romantically involved could create issues, including:

  • Decreased morale;
  • Loss of a good employee who wishes to date a coworker but cannot due to the company policy; and
  • Awkward moments for management as well as great difficulty actually enforcing the policy.

Short of banning all workplace dating, there are other options for employers:

  • Consider limiting the prohibition to only those relationships in which one romantic partner has a role of authority over the other.
  • Consider prohibiting couples from working together directly.
  • Consider policies that do not ban dating, but instead merely discourage it.
  • Consider requiring disclosure of relationships so that you can take steps to minimize problems. Those steps might include special counsel and a signed acknowledgment from both employees, to verify they understand the company’s expectations for professional conduct.

What should the policy include?

One thing is clear. Without a solid policy, a company can open itself up to potential sexual harassment claims as well as legal consequences. The policy should address the following:

  • Whether or not romantic relationships will be allowed
  • Whether or not a supervisor/manager may engage in a relationship with a subordinate
  • Reporting requirements for any employee engaging in a workplace romance
  • Confidentiality responsibilities between the two employees
  • Written guidelines that apply to all employees in the organization, regardless of sexual orientation
  • Expectations of professionalism in the workplace, such as the appropriate behaviors of interaction while on the clock or while at any work function.

When creating the policy, it is important to keep in mind the general mindset of the entire workforce. Although a study shows that most workers do not mind when their unmarried coworkers engage in a relationship, they tend to object when the relationship is between a supervisor and subordinate, assuming it will lead to favoritism. In addition, public displays of affection in the workplace, regardless of who is involved, may cause discomfort for those who witness it.

This same study revealed that permissive policies may lead to an increase of extramarital affairs. When inter-office dating is allowed, some married employees may feel less taboo when pursing a coworker. This can have an adverse effect on morale and cause personal distress if coworkers feel the need to cover for those engaged in the adulterous relationship.

Ultimately, it is essential to determine which guidelines best fit your organization and the culture you would like to establish.

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