Monday, October 1, 2012

You Can’t Legislate Love, But Regulation of Romance in the Workplace Is Necessary

“You can’t legislate love,” someone with whom I worked told me once.  We were discussing our company’s policy forbidding a manager from dating or marrying someone who worked in his or her group.

One of the subplots in my forthcoming novel about a business in trouble deals with a potential romance between one of the corporate officers and a woman in another division. They have started dating, then they move into roles where she reports to him.

Love happens. What are co-workers in love supposed to do?

According to a recent article in Workforce Week, entitled Office Romance Policies Can Reduce Risk, 38 percent of respondents to a Career Builder Survey had dated a co-worker, and one-third of them married the co-worker. Once people are out of college and graduate school, the workplace is a great place to find romance.

But still, employers should have policies on workplace romances. Otherwise, the risks of harassment and other problems when love goes bad are too high. I’ve dealt with lovers who turn each other in for theft, with one employee stalking a former paramour, with love triangles (particularly serious when two of the three employees are still married), and with several couples caught in inappropriate situations in offices, conference rooms, and minivans in the parking lot.

At a minimum, office romance policies should require employees to keep their pants and skirts on, except in the restroom.

Beyond that, here are issues for employers to think about when adopting an office romance policy:
  1. Forbid managers from entering into a relationship with anyone in their chain of command. The risks of claims of coercion or sexual harassment by the subordinate, or of favoritism by other employees, are too high. If a personal relationship does develop between a manager and subordinate, or if someone a manager is dating is moved into a position that creates a chain of command, require the manager to tell HR or his or her superiors, so they can decide how to handle the situation.
  2. Integrate the office romance policy with the employer’s conflict of interest policy (as it pertains to nepotism), so  it is clear that no one makes decisions on the hiring, firing, performance, and/or compensation of a relative or person they are dating.
  3. Make it clear that employees must treat other employees with respect at all times. Forbid any harassment, stalking, disparagement, or similar behavior. 
  4. Integrate the policy with the employer’s social media policy – it isn’t just conduct at work that should be banned, but also public conduct (including postings on Facebook and the like) that disparages or harasses other employees.
  5. Consider whether to ban dating between employees altogether. The problem with a policy that is this broad is that it requires a definition of “dating.”
  6. Consider whether to ban “public displays of affecton.” This, too, can be difficult to define.
  7. Some employers require “love contracts,” in which employees who are dating acknowledge in writing that the relationship is consensual and re-affirm their awareness of the anti-harassment and non-disparagement policies.
  8. Consider whether the office romance policy should apply to dating consultants, customers, vendors, and other people with whom the employer has an ongoing relationship. This aspect, too, should be integrated with the conflict of interest policy.

No, you can’t legislate love, but you can try to minimize the problems that result in the workplace when love goes bad. (Or when love goes good.)

Have you had any experiences where romances in the workplace caused problems?

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