Many employers are taking a hard look at workplace romances — that's what the Society for Human Resource Management discovered in its Workplace Romance survey of HR professionals. More than twice as many employers — 42 percent — have written or verbal policies on office romances than in 2005, when the rate was 20 percent. The survey canvassed 380 HR professionals July 9-26 in 2013.
Most respondents — 67 percent — said the number of romances among employees has remained the same over the eight-year time period surveyed.
Companies realize they aren't going to stop people from having romantic relationships, so explicit policies help them protect the organization from claims of sexual harassment, ensuring there's no favoritism or conflict that may hurt productivity and impact morale.
Most managers know that more rigid policies are not needed — this just drives romantic interludes underground. The situation calls for careful consideration, communication and commonsense guidelines that must be communicated clearly and frequently to staff.
Your policies should stress rules of decency, courtesy and etiquette in a sensible framework. Let your company's values and principles rule — a simple set of tenets. The underlying philosophy assumes everyone is adult and can be honest and forthright. You may allow for consensual relationships but require that the more senior person involved in a romance disclose it if it's between a superior and a subordinate.
Some firms make their romance guidelines part of their overall diversity policy. By asking the more senior person to fess up, the company can make sure the supervisor has no input into the junior person's workload or raises.
What policies wish to avoid are distractions, work suffering, co-workers being adversely affected and conflicts taking place.
Among other survey findings:
- Fifty-three percent of work romances are between employees in different departments.
- Nearly one-third (32 percent) are between workers of the same rank.
- Nearly one in six (16 percent) can be classified as affairs because one or both already have spouses or significant others.
- Fewer than one in 10 (8 percent) happen between a supervisor and a direct subordinate or between employees of significantly different rank, such as a CEO and a manager.
- More than half the respondents said that office romances had led to marriage or a long-term relationship.
Other problems from romances:
- One party says the relationship was not consensual and claims assault and battery, false imprisonment and defamation. The plaintiff then sues the individual in the same suit with the company. Of course, this creates a potential conflict of interest between the employer and the employee and increases the cost of litigation if the employer is in a position where the firm feels the need to pay for a defense on behalf of the individual.
- Complaints of favoritism between co-workers in a romantic relationship. Such perceptions damage office morale. Romance leads to gossip, hurt feelings and unfair advantages. This doesn't create a healthy work environment.
Policies delineate prohibitions against:
- Romances between employees who report to the same supervisor, or between an employee and a client or customer.
- Romances between employees and competitor workers.
- Public displays of affection and sharing of confidential company information between romantic partners.
- Gossip among co-workers and drops in productivity from the couple and their colleagues.
- Damage to the organization's image because the pairing may be seen as unprofessional.
- Threats to worker competence, demoralized co-workers, secrecy, potential conflict of interests and, worse yet, claims of invasion of privacy and sexual-harassment lawsuits.
Employees are working longer hours in environments that encourage teamwork and familiarity. With work becoming more time-consuming, there's less leisure time for outside activities, and so the workplace is transformed into a meeting den.
One of the best ways to prevent any sort of harassment is to articulate in your policy that if a worker experiences any discomfort, he or she should speak to a supervisor promptly.