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Updated Jan 03, 2024

How to Manage Workplace Relationships

Ross Mudrick
Ross Mudrick, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer

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Romance in the workplace isn’t unusual. In the past, many organizations banned office romances to avoid potential problems, such as conflicts of interest, productivity losses, disruptions and the potential for abuse of power. 

Today, however, most businesses understand that banning workplace relationships isn’t realistic or feasible. People will likely continue their relationships anyway, and the company could lose talented team members because of antiquated policies. 

Given that people do meet at work and often form committed relationships, managers and human resources professionals must carefully and tactfully implement policies to manage these situations properly. The goal isn’t to interfere with relationships; it is to establish policies that protect the organization and all of its team members. 

We’ll explain how to establish clear policies on workplace relationships and how to communicate them to all employees. 

Did You Know?Did you know

Women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace. They’re also often left out of the conversation at work and face pregnancy discrimination, the gender pay gap and career advancement challenges.

How to manage workplace romantic relationships

With workplace relationships so common and accepted, banning them seems pointless, particularly as organizations strive to attract and retain top talent

For this reason, HR managers and company leaders must establish policies and procedures to manage potential issues, protect employees and cover their business’s legal bases.

Workplace relationship policies to consider 

Workplace relationship policies put measures in place to protect a business and its employees. “Workplace relationship policies should place requirements on employees to adhere to the company’s anti-harassment policy and its reporting mandates,” advised employment-law attorney Dana Chang Dikas. 

While most businesses want to be discreet, protecting employees is crucial. “Policies also can (and, in most cases, should) prohibit relationships between supervisors and subordinates, which can be breeding grounds for claims of sexual harassment or favoritism, divulgence of confidential company information, gossip, and other workplace disruptions,” Chang Dikas said.

Standard policies regarding workplace relationships include the following:

  • Mandatory disclosure of the relationship to the HR department
  • A ban on relationships between superiors and subordinates
  • Signing of “love contract” agreements and acknowledgement of the company’s anti-sexual-harassment policies
  • A ban on public displays of affection within the workplace

How to communicate workplace romance policies to employees

While strong policies are essential, it’s important to explain them to employees clearly and not just bury them in the employee handbook. Many employees aren’t aware of the company’s official position on workplace relationships. Just because you write it doesn’t mean they’ll read it.

“Having well-developed policies is important, but it is equally important that the policies are communicated to employees and that managers are thoroughly trained on how to handle sexual harassment complaints,” Chang Dikas said.

TipTip

Along with workplace harassment and other employment-law matters, your company handbook should cover paid leave policies, paid time off (PTO) policies and your sick leave policy.

What research says about office romances

Establishing a solid workplace relationship policy and ensuring your employees understand it are excellent first steps. However, it won’t solve all of the potential problems associated with office romances. Even with the best policies in place, office romances can be challenging to manage.  

Here’s what studies reveal about attitudes surrounding workplace relationships. 

1. Workplace romance disclosure requirements alone don’t help.

While disclosing a workplace relationship is often a mandatory part of companies’ policies, it tends not to be especially effective at preventing office romances or controlling the fallout from a relationship gone wrong. 

In a 2022 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 77 percent of respondents said they didn’t disclose their workplace relationships to their employers. There are many complex reasons that employees may not report their relationships, including the following:

  • One party in the office relationship may be married. 
  • People identifying as LGBTQ may be reluctant to report a relationship.
  • Employees may believe that their personal lives are not the employer’s business.

Even if employees disclose romantic relationships, the organization isn’t necessarily protected from harassment lawsuits. For example, one party can say they were coerced into disclosure, or the fallout from a breakup, if not handled properly, can create consequences for an entire team. 

2. Employees don’t view office romances as a big deal.

Many employees see no problem with workplace relationships. Here are some of the key findings of the SHRM study:

  • 33 percent of U.S. workers are currently in, or have been in, a romantic relationship with a co-worker.
  • 50 percent have had office crushes.
  • 75 percent are perfectly OK with office romances among their co-workers. 
  • 84 percent respect, or would respect, colleagues involved in a workplace romance. 

Additionally, a survey by HR consultancy The Shift Work Shop revealed these statistics:

  • 81 percent of respondents have dated a co-worker.
  • More than 77 percent have had a sexual relationship with a co-worker at some point in their career.

3. Sexual harassment and sexism are still huge problems. 

The Shift Work Shop survey revealed that although employees are accepting of workplace relationships, there’s still enormous potential for sexual harassment. Consider these statistics:

  • 54 percent reported relationships with power imbalances.
  • 55 percent of women, 44 percent of men and 46 percent of nonbinary/GNC employees have faced sexism in the workplace.
  • More than 63 percent of women, over 35 percent of men and 1 percent of nonbinary people reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their careers.
  • 55 percent of women and 50 percent of men reported experiencing harassment within the past 12 months.

Prevailing risks of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace mean it’s vital to clearly outline workplace relationship policies.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway

Sexual harassment is at the top of HR compliance issues companies face. Discrimination, workplace harassment and disability claims are other top issues.

The risks of workplace romances

Office romances carry all the potential risks and rewards of typical relationships, with an added layer of complexity. Closely blending professional and personal lives can be a recipe for disaster. “Workplace romances can adversely affect employee morale and productivity by distracting the romantic partners and their co-workers,” Chang Dikas said. “They also may lead to conflict and claims of disparate treatment or sexual harassment.” 

In addition to creating a disruptive atmosphere rife with gossip and rumors, office romances can sometimes lead to serious problems, including the following: 

Well-established policies can mitigate many of the potential negatives of workplace relationships. For employers, managing office romances is about reducing the potential for harm. 

“The negatives can be managed by employers addressing workplace relationships head-on,” Chang Dikas said. “Blanket ‘no fraternizing’ policies don’t work. Employers must communicate their conduct and behavioral expectations to employees and take proactive steps to avoid potential liability.”

Did you know? Workplace friendships and office rivalries can also affect office culture.

Protect your workplace from the consequences of office romances

People meet on the job, and many may find lasting commitment and happiness with an office romance that stands the test of time. However, there is potential for trouble. It’s up to management and HR to protect a company’s employees and the overall organization’s best interests by implementing clear workplace relationship policies. 

Along with policies, anti-sexual-harassment training can ensure everyone understands what’s at stake. “Employers may consider including training modules on how to handle romantic relationships among employees and should thoroughly investigate all claims and promptly take appropriate action,” Chang Dikas said. “Following these steps can help reduce a company’s potential liability if an employee decides to file a sexual harassment lawsuit.” Note that sexual harassment laws may apply to your business as they become more specific.

With office romances, preparing for the worst while hoping for the best is always a wise course of action.

Adam Uzialko contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Ross Mudrick
Ross Mudrick, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Ross Mudrick has more than 10 years of experience counseling organizations on fundraising, strategic communications and operations development. Over the course of his career, his consultative services have helped organizations obtain grants from the U.S. State Department, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York and many others. Past clients include the New York City Economic Development Corporation and CoWorker.org. Mudrick is well-versed in crafting budget proposals, business cases, press releases and more documentation. Recently, his work has expanded to recommending the best business software for nonprofits and other enterprises. Mudrick holds a masters in public administration from NYU, where he studied adaptable organizations and systems management.
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