Office romance is becoming increasingly more common. But whether or not workplace romances lead to wedded bliss, they must be handled with care.
Office romance can provide a unique set of challenges to both parties involved, as well as to their supervisors and HR managers. Indeed, no matter how discreet or consensual, these relationships come with some built-in pitfalls. First and most simply, office romances can become a distraction. They can harm the productivity of both the parties involved and their immediate colleagues. Nobody is immune to office gossip…and a budding romance makes for compelling water cooler chat.
More seriously, an office romance can lead to the perception—real or imagined—of favoritism. When a romance occurs between colleagues at different levels of the company, or when one is in a position to positively influence the career, compensation or opportunities for advancement of the other, the perception of favoritism can arise. This is, of course, particularly an issue when the relationship occurs between an employee and his or her supervisor, or someone up the chain of reporting.
A related pitfall is the possibility of damaged credibility or reputation for both the individuals involved as well as the department or company as a whole. Individuals who are dating colleagues may be perceived as less professional for mixing business and pleasure, or even as using their romantic liaisons to advance their position. Next, consider what could happen if a workplace romance turns sour. With a breakup comes the possibility of hard feelings, a stressful environment, disruption of work and productivity or even the potential loss of a valued employee who seeks employment elsewhere to distance him or herself from a former romantic partner. Most seriously, an office romance that ends less than amicably can have significant legal consequences.
Let’s take a moment to discuss sexual harassment, which is illegal under federal law and the law in most states. Simply defined, sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that either results in a hostile work environment and/or results in a tangible employment action, such as a firing, promotion or demotion based on the employee's submission to or refusal of sexual advances. In addition, a relationship gone sour can provoke illegal behavior such as threats, unwanted contact or other forms of harassment that don’t belong in a workplace or anywhere else.
So what can you do as a supervisor or HR manager to minimize these pitfalls? First, develop a policy on interoffice dating and relationships, and publish it in your employee handbook. While you cannot regulate employees’ off-site behavior and personal choices, you can clearly state that disruption or distraction due to office romance will not be tolerated. You can also prohibit relationships between supervisors and their direct reports, or between any individuals in a chain of command. Outline a procedure for helping such individuals find different positions within the company or, as a last resort, employment elsewhere. Explain your company’s commitment to integrity and professionalism, both internal and external.
Finally, draft, publish and distribute a zero-tolerance policy for sexual or any other kind of harassment in the workplace, including threats or intimidation. Remember, in some instances, the liability for charges of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment could land on the employer…so you must work to avoid these situations. With a strong policy and good communication in place, you have a great chance of smoothing out any disruption and threats office romance might pose to your organization. For more information, and to learn more about sexual harassment, visit us online at www.HR360.com.