Romantic Relationships in the Workplace
by Maggie Johnson
When two people spend a lot of time together, a romantic relationship may develop between them. In a recent survey by Namely, 40 percent of the survey’s participants indicated that they’d had a romantic relationship with a co-worker, with five percent of them having had a romantic relationship with their boss or a direct report. A 2017 CareerBuilder study showed 41 percent of professionals have dated a co-worker with 30 percent of office romances resulting in marriage. While a blooming romance may be a happy thing, in the workplace, it can spell big trouble! For a couple working alongside each other, and who are engaged in a romantic relationship, here are just three issues that could spring from that situation:
Office gossip and some teasing of the couple may seem harmless at first, but could lead to detrimental consequences. These include negatively affecting employee morale, false and reckless statements about the couple, unprofessional behavior, and a host of other concerns. This only gets more unpleasant if the romance breaks up, with one of the former lovebirds feeling wronged; then, employees “take sides.” Before you know it, the workplace could suffer from undesirable conflicts with work affected and productivity taking a nosedive!
An office romance between a supervisor and his or her direct report can be career-busting for the boss! The supervisor’s other subordinates may see favoritism; where it might not exist, nevertheless, may result in employees’ claims of disparate treatment and unfairness. Because of the unevenness of power between a boss and the subordinate, the romance could easily be interpreted as the supervisor’s coercion of his romantic partner and cause allegations of a hostile work environment, sexual harassment, and worse!
Even if an office affair begins with a consensual relationship, it can still end up in court with claims of sexual harassment. As examples, in both Gerald v. Univ. of Puerto Rico and Green v. Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund, a consensual sexual relationship occurred between the supervisor and subordinate. In both cases, after the relationships ended, the subordinates were subjected to continued sexual harassment by their supervisors, and in both cases, the courts found for the subordinate claimant.
Establish a Consensual Romantic Relationship Policy
While you may not be able to prevent consensual romantic relationships from occurring in your workplace, developing a few sensible guidelines may help to limit company liability. Here are some suggested policy provisions:
Make it clear that a romantic relationship between a supervisor and subordinate is in conflict with the Company’s policy on sexual harassment. Thus, the company will not indemnify the supervisor for any legal action(s) taken against the supervisor (such as a claim of sexual harassment) or any resulting financial losses that the supervisor may incur because of his her policy breach. Moreover, the supervisor will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of his or her employment.
If a romantic relationship occurs between co-workers, the policy should require that it is disclosed to the Human Resources Department who should consider the particular circumstances such as:
- the reporting relationship between the employees;
- whether the employees work in the same department or in close proximity;
- the possible effect on other co-workers;
- the effect on business operations;
- the behavior and conduct of the employees in the workplace or at any company event;
- the positions the employees hold; and
- any other relevant information.
The policy should clearly state that based on the facts obtained, one or both of the employees are subject to transfer to another department or another position. If no transfer is available, the company may wish to include a policy provision for one of the parties to resign.
Make sure that your Consensual Romantic Relationships policy reinforces the company’s policy on sexual harassment, and be sure to include that any displays of affection in the workplace are in violation of such policy.
Every work environment is different, and some workplaces seem to be more conducive for romantic relationships to blossom. Regardless, no type of workplace excuses the ugliness of sexual harassment. Therefore, please be sure to consult your attorney or legal advisor on developing the policy that is right for your company.