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How to Manage Workplace Relationships

Office Romances: What Should Your Policy Be?
Credit: XiXinXing/Shutterstock

Workplace relationships might not seem like a pressing issue. Sure, office romances have been known to crop up and sometimes even cause issues, but, surely, it's not so prevalent a phenomenon, right?

That might not be the case, according to a survey conducted by Vault.com, which found 58 percent of employees surveyed have engaged in office romances. And as workers get older, the likelihood of participating in such a workplace relationship increases: 72 percent of workers age 50 and older reported having at least one romantic workplace relationship during their career.

Given how common office romances are, it's important to have a clearly established company policy that is communicated to employees explicitly. When 40 percent of office romances became serious, long-term relationships or even marriages, they have the potential to impact the work of not just the people in the relationship but also their co-workers. Workplace relationships don't have to be a negative for productivity or workplace culture, but they do have to be managed properly to avoid problems.

Office romances carry all the potential risks and rewards of typical relationships, except with an added layer of risk. Closely blending the professional and personal in such an intense way could be a recipe for disaster. In addition to creating an atmosphere often rife with gossip and rumors, which disrupt a professional culture, office romances can sometimes lead to serious conflicts. While these conflicts stem from a personal relationship, they can impact a business as well, putting office romances squarely in the scope of management's purview.

"Workplace romances can adversely affect employee morale and productivity by distracting the romantic partners and their co-workers," said Dana Chang Dikas, an attorney with labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. "They also may lead to conflict and claims of disparate treatment or sexual harassment."

In most cases, managers and employers can mitigate the potential negatives of workplace relationships with a well-established set of policies that are clearly communicated to employees. For employers, managing office romances is all about the reduction of potential harm, and there are several steps they can take toward that end.

"The negatives can be managed by employers addressing workplace relationships head-on," 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."

The first step toward dealing with potential office romances is establishing a set of policies and procedures. Having a plan in place and a process hammered out for the romantic partners to follow when their office romance begins can help prepare management for any potential issues and cover your business's bases to the greatest extent possible.

"Workplace relationship policies should place requirements on employees to adhere to the company's anti-harassment policy and its reporting mandates," Dikas said. "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."

These are some common policies regarding workplace relationships:

  • Mandatory disclosure of the relationship to the HR department
  • A ban on relationships between superiors and subordinates
  • The signing of "love contract" agreements and acknowledgment of company anti-sexual harassment policies
  • A ban on public displays of affection within the workplace

While a strong set of policies is important, it's critical they are clearly explained to employees rather than just buried in the handbook. According to the Vault.com survey, 41 percent of employees surveyed weren't aware of their company's official position on workplace relationships. Just because you write it doesn't mean they will 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," Dikas said. [See our related story to better understand how to conduct sexual harassment training in your workplace.]

Establishing a solid workplace relationship policy and making sure your employees understand it is a great start, but it won't solve all the problems associated with office romances. Survey results show that even with the best policies in place, office romances can be a difficult thing to manage.  

While disclosure of a workplace relationship is often a mandatory part of companies' policies, it tends to not be especially effective at preventing office romances or controlling the fallout from a relationship gone wrong. According to BambooHR, 75 percent of human resources professionals said so-called "love contracts" do not help prevent negative outcomes.

Moreover, many employees view a workplace relationship as a purely personal matter. Of the survey respondents that engaged in an office romance, 75 percent believed the relationship didn't affect anyone besides themselves and the other participant. Perhaps that's why 64 percent decided to keep their relationship secret. In fact, only 16 percent of the employees surveyed ever told their managers or employers about the relationship.

There are some things a workplace policy simply cannot control, and matters of the heart appear to be chief among them. Despite the risks associated with office romances, 72 percent of the employees surveyed by Vault.com that engaged in an office romance said they would do it again – regardless of what workplace policy has to say about it.

Office relationships invite trouble. Whether it's distracted employees, feelings of resentment or highly visible arguments disrupting productivity, protecting your business from a heated romance gone awry needs to be your foremost priority when planning to deal with them. Banning office relationships outright is not realistic, as the statistics show, so hoping for the best while being prepared for the worst is the next best thing.

"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," Dikas said. "Following these steps can help reduce a company's potential liability if an employee decides to file a sexual harassment lawsuit."

That's not to say that all office romances go south. After all, 22 percent of married couples in the U.S. first met at work. When it comes to an attraction as strong as love (or lust), there's little employers can do to prevent employees from exploring those emotions on their own time. Inevitably, these relationships can affect the workplace for better or worse, but preparing for the worst while hoping for the best is always a wise course of action. 

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam C. Uzialko, a New Jersey native, graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 with a degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies. In addition to his full-time position at Business News Daily and Business.com, Adam freelances for a variety of outlets. An indispensable ally of the feline race, Adam is owned by four lovely cats.