Love Is in the Air — and in the Workplace
As I write this column, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. Remember in school how awkward this day could be? But that was nothing compared to the pitfalls of romance at work.
People are going to get romantically involved at the workplace. As adults, most of us spend more time at work than anywhere else.
What is a company to do? Some companies have a strict policy against romantic relationships among employees. I do not agree with such a policy, because I believe companies should only have policies they can effectively enforce. Zero tolerance does not eliminate workplace romances, it just makes them secretive and covert — which means they are that much harder to deal with as an employer.
Several obvious pitfalls accompany office romances. There is the potential, actual or perceived, of favoritism toward a love interest. There is the obvious possibility of sexual harassment if one person in the relationship has authority over the other person’s job. And, ultimately, what happens if the relationship ends badly?
There is no law that prohibits consensual romantic relationships between adults in the workplace. And each workplace is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all policy that will work everywhere. There are some things that are critical in any workforce and some things that might help in certain situations.
First and foremost, companies need to have effective anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. Even small companies, for whom the federal law prohibiting these behaviors does not apply, should have these policies, because they are simply good practice. This means not only having a policy in the employee handbook, but having regular periodic training for managers and rank-and-file employees about the policy, how to report harassment and that the company will not retaliate for any such report.
Some optional policies include: (i) a complete prohibition on supervisor/subordinate relationships; (ii) an obligation to inform the company of the existence of a romantic relationship and (iii) so-called “love contracts.”
Love contracts primarily serve to establish that the relationship is consensual. They can also reinforce other company policies, such as the harassment/discrimination policy. These contracts are every bit as awkward to implement as they sound, but properly drawn, they can help everyone in the workplace navigate an otherwise precarious situation.
The time to create and implement these policies is before there is an obvious issue with any two employees. Otherwise, whatever path the company chooses can feel like targeting to the affected employees.