Workplace romances tend to be the stuff of legend – either because a department (or entire company) got dragged into the drama, or the couple lives happily ever after. Rarely is there a middle ground.
For that reason, many companies discourage interoffice dating. Period. But love, or like, sometimes happens anyway.
What do and don’t you allow? How much jurisdiction does a business leader really have over employees’ off-time?
The good of the business
Lest you feel hard-hearted for discouraging workplace lovebirds, consider the turmoil and drop in productivity that can be caused by gossip, poor morale, and accusations of favoritism or sexual harassment charges.
Yes, it may feel weird to try and control someone’s love life, but your job as a leader is to ensure a fair and equitable workplace. Just a few of the real-world difficulties caused by workplace romance that I’ve seen during my career include:
- An HR manager knew about an upcoming layoff. Her partner, who worked in another department, knew nothing about it. The HR manager revealed this confidential information, violating an essential condition of her job and potentially undermining trust in the entire HR department.
- Employees complained about feeling unable to have difficult conversations with their boss who was one member of a couple. Though the couple worked in different departments, employees felt that pillow talk was inevitable and they didn’t want their confidential information spreading through the company.
- In a worst-case scenario, one couple let their relationship problems spill into the workplace and fought in front of coworkers.
The basics of an employee dating policy
Interestingly, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that while HR professionals aren’t reporting more workplace romances, the number of companies that have adopted formal romance policies has sharply increased. Should your company do the same? Can a policy protect your company from charges of sexual harassment or favoritism, conflict or morale problems?
While it can make some managers uncomfortable to tell employees what to do on their off time, the purpose of a formal policy is to keep employees effective and productive. Make sure employees understand the position of the company isn’t to control their personal lives, but to ensure a fair and comfortable work environment for everyone.
Here are a few common stipulations that companies include in an employee dating policy:
- Workplace romances are discouraged.
- If employees become involved, they cannot report to one another, cannot be of significantly different rank and cannot work in the same department.
- Couples must keep it professional and not act like a couple at work. This means no PDA and certainly no fighting.
- No sharing of confidential information.
- Outline the consequences of breaking these rules.
Having a formal policy doesn’t mean you have to write someone up every time you find out about a casual date. However, you do have to act immediately if productivity is affected, if you get complaints from employees, or gossip and conflict are tearing a department apart.
Pull the two employees aside, preferably together. Some conversation starters might include:
- I’m not comfortable having to bring this up, but your productivity (or your department’s productivity) has dramatically changed, so I feel I must intervene.
- I know your personal life is your own business, but there have been complaints (of favoritism, of public displays of affection, etc.) that must be addressed.
Should employees get involved, some companies have the partners sign a “love contract.” Such documents specify that the relationship is consensual, that the pair will behave professionally, won’t engage in favoritism nor will take legal action against the employer, or each other, if the relationship ends.
Yes, workplace romance can be managed if two people really care about one another, keep their relationship as quiet as possible and act like professionals at work. However, sometimes the crazy creeps in and that’s when a workplace romance policy can protect your company.
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