Ah, love. It can strike anywhere – including the workplace. According to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), workplace romance is on the rise with one-third of U.S. employees reporting that they are currently romantically involved or have been involved previously with a co-worker.
You may have heard about companies implementing a workplace dating policy, or, in extreme scenarios, even asking employees in romantic relationships to sign a strict “love contract.”
You may be asking: Do I need to go to these lengths, too?
Is an employee dating policy necessary?
Yes and no.
A workplace dating policy – as part of a larger non fraternization policy – is important. But attempting to prohibit romance period or adopting overly restrictive policies aren’t sound strategies either. In fact, it may just promote deception and resentment among employees.
The rigid days of zero tolerance for workplace dating have given way to a more open, thoughtful and, frankly, realistic approach to the issue. (So you can toss out that condescending “love contract!”)
Increasingly, there’s a general sense among business leaders that, even if they discourage romantic relationships and tell their employees so, these relationships are inevitably going to happen anyway with or without their knowledge and approval. That’s because workplaces are made up of human beings, with their own feelings that are well outside management’s realm of control.
Furthermore, your employees are not legally required to disclose any romantic relationships with co-workers to your company. Per SHRM, 77% of employees who have been involved in a workplace romance did not tell their employer. You certainly can’t – and hopefully don’t want to – police their personal lives or violate their privacy anyway.
But employers must find a reasonable balance. Certainly, romantic relationships in the workplace do present valid concerns for businesses.
In the form of a fraternization policy, companies should be prepared and have parameters in place to mitigate some of the pitfalls that could potentially happen.
Why is workplace dating seemingly more accepted now?
Especially following the COVID-19 pandemic, companies recognize that people crave social connection. This isn’t to say office romance should be encouraged.
But generally speaking in the workplace, good, solid relationships (all types – friends, colleagues, metnors, etc.) are incredibly beneficial. The advantages of having team members collaborate frequently and feel close with each other include:
- Achieving a positive workplace culture
- Building morale
- Increasing workplace engagement and enthusiasm
- Improving retention
With talent shortages continuing to challenge businesses, employers don’t want to deploy draconian policies that infantilize, alienate and drive away valued employees either.
Workplaces are also simply less formal and more flexible now. For example:
- Offices with brick-and-mortar locations tend to have open designs to encourage connection and inspire conversation.
- Dress codes have relaxed, allowing employees to be more comfortable and display greater personality.
- Workplaces often host fun team-building and social activities that enable employees to reveal more of their authentic selves and get to know each other better in a relaxed environment.
- Many employees opt to hang out outside work or even connect on social media, where they see more of each other’s personal lives and easily identify commonalities.
Additionally, younger generations are growing their presence in the workplace, and they have much more casual attitudes toward romantic relationships at work. Their attitude is life comes first.
This acceptance may even be accelerating beyond Millennials and Generation Z. SHRM reports that three-fourths of all employees are comfortable with romantic involvement between co-workers.
When you really think about it, work generally is all about relationships – with colleagues, managers, mentors, customers, vendors and, of course, personal relationships that precede or form within the workplace. Friends often work together. Family members may work together.
In terms of how they should be addressed, conflicts within romantic relationships really aren’t all that different from conflicts in other relationships.
And remember: Not every romantic relationship between employees will become negative. In fact, some employee romances turn into marriage – which is a very positive thing!
Pitfalls of romantic relationships in the workplace
Yet, it’s understandable why business leaders have historically been wary of romantic relationships in the workplace. These relationships carry risks of:
- Unprofessional behavior, such as:
- Open fighting in front of co-workers, especially if the relationship ends
- Exes who cannot work together properly
- Possible escalation into workplace violence
- Issues caused by a manager and subordinate who are (or were) involved, such as:
- Charges of favoritism from other team members
- Other team members’ fear of engaging in difficult conversations with their boss out of concern that this information may be shared with the romantic partner
- Retaliation against a subordinate after a relationship ends
- Inappropriate disclosure of confidential company information from one romantically involved partner to another
- Accusations of sexual harassment
- Gossip and drama throughout the office
Basics of a workplace dating policy
A general workplace dating policy or non fraternization policy should address all types of potentially contentious relationships that occur in the workplace, including friends, family members and romantic partners working together.
The purpose of a workplace dating provision within this larger policy is to:
- Ensure a fair and comfortable work environment for everyone
- Protect the company from any legal liability
- Set expectations for professionalism and behavior while at work
- Establish any ground rules; for example:
- Employees who become involved should not report to one another or be of significantly different rank
- Employees in relationships may not share sensitive company information or private information about colleagues with one another
- Explain what happens when problems arise or policy violations occur
Its purpose is not to tell employees what to do in their off time or attempt to control their personal lives.
As you establish your behavioral expectations and ground rules, carefully think through how “hardline” your company should be, and weigh the benefits versus unintended consequences. Much of this will depend on your:
- Company size and structure
What to do when relationships go awry
Are other employees complaining about the situation?
Have you noticed PDA, fighting or other inappropriate behavior between employees in a romantic relationship?
Is a romantic relationship directly contributing to a productivity dip or otherwise negatively impacting the employees’ job performance or their team as a whole?
If yes, it’s time to take action.
1. Talk to the employees privately
Pull the two employees aside for a private conversation, preferably together. This is your opportunity to clear the air and put them on notice that the situation must improve.
- Inform them of the issues you’re witnessing or hearing about from other team members.
- Give them a chance to tell their side of the story and resolve any misunderstandings.
- Revisit their obligations under your workplace dating policy.
- Discuss how to address the issue and move forward.
2. Encourage use of the company EAP
Relationships can struggle for a variety of reasons, from mental health challenges to financial problems, stress, substance abuse, family obligations or grief, for example.
Without prying into the why, remind couples who may be experiencing conflict of the resources available to them under your company’s employee assistance program (EAP), including relationship counseling and help with a wide range of personal issues.
3. Rely on your company’s conflict resolution policy
Sometimes, employees just can’t get along – including those in current or former romantic relationships. In these situations, turn to your company’s conflict resolution policy for guidance on how to proceed.
4. Separate the employees
In extreme circumstances in which employees can’t get along even after managerial intervention or can’t behave professionally in close quarters, it may be time to separate them by realigning teams or shifting them into new roles.
This is why some companies prefer that employees in romantic relationships don’t work in the same department or on the same team.
5. Resort to your company’s disciplinary policy if needed
If you have discussed specific violations of your workplace dating policy with employees and the situation fails to improve, it’s time to start the disciplinary process.
Depending on the infraction (for example, violence against an ex), on-the-spot termination may be warranted.
Summing it all up
Although romantic relationships in the workplace may be a valid cause for concern among employers, these relationships are on the rise and will happen regardless of your approval. It’s best to be prepared with a reasonable workplace dating policy that aims to set parameters. Outline behavioral expectations, establish basic rules and define the consequences of policy violations. Don’t be overly rigid or controlling – you’ll only alienate employees. Instead, make it clear that your goal is to maintain professionalism and promote a fair and comfortable work environment for all.
Your workplace policies must strike the right balance between protecting your business and demonstrating respect for employees’ privacy and autonomy. To learn about how to avoid other common errors that can cause problems for your business, download our free e-book: 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.