The American workplace has changed over the years. The average number of hours an American works each week has crept higher and higher. As workers spend more and more time on the job, it’s no wonder that both social and romantic relationships develop in the workplace. The latter may be more apparent over the next week, thanks to Valentine’s Day.
Surprisingly, romantic relationships in the workplace can be beneficial to an organization. If workplace romance progresses smoothly, companies may notice improved work performance in the form of a positive workplace dynamic, improved employee morale, effective communication, and increased creativity.
But relationships do not always run smoothly. Romance in the workplace can be extremely difficult to manage, not only for the lovebirds themselves, but for companies that are concerned that the romance will cause an unwelcome distraction.
Even worse for a company, though, is the legal risk of such a situation. A failed relationship in the office has the potential to turn into a costly sexual harassment suit.
What employers are doing
To manage the risk, companies create policies to address workplace romance. Few of these policies require that employees refrain from engaging in romantic relationships altogether, particularly since such a policy can be extremely difficult to enforce. However, many employers are taking the time to outline what is and is not acceptable in the workplace.
For example, some companies include agreements stating that an involved employee will not seek an immediate supervisory role over a romantic partner. Others ask employees not to engage in any physical displays of affection in the workplace. At the very least, a company should have a policy defining sexual harassment and establishing a no-tolerance protocol.
Some employers’ policies go a bit further by requiring employees to supply information about romantic relationships in the workplace. For instance, a policy or agreement might require employees to agree to do any or all of the following:
Acknowledge when a relationship materializes;
Acknowledge that the company’s sexual harassment policy is understood and agree to abide by it;
Promise to act professionally at all times while at work (both while in a relationship and after it ends); and/or
Promise to notify the human resources department if or when the relationship ends. This puts an employer on notice to watch for any incidents of sexual harassment and also identifies the time in which a relationship was consensual.
Beyond the policy
While policies can be helpful in regard to personal relationships in the workplace, it is still important that a company seriously address any claim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment training and awareness programs can help to prevent some claims, but employers who receive a complaint of harassment should conduct a thorough, prompt, and impartial investigation, no matter what the relationship between the parties involved.
Source: Upstart Business Journal, Katie Loehrke
Photo: As American workers spend more time on the job, workplace romances increase – and so does the legal risk to companies that don’t have policies in place to address them. (Jean-Marie Guyon)
Katie Loehrke has been an editor at J. J. Keller & Associates since 2007. She specializes in employment law issues such as privacy and social media, I-9 compliance, EEO-1 and Affirmative Action reporting, discrimination, unemployment, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. She is a certified Professional in Human Resources through the Society for Human Resource Management and the HR Certification Institute.