Workplace Romances: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Take care that heartaches don’t become headaches

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek February 12, 2020
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workplace romance 2020

​Ever crushed on someone you work with? Or asked a co-worker out on a date? If so, you're not alone.

Slightly more than half of survey respondents admit to having had romantic feelings for a co-worker and nearly one-fourth have asked a colleague out, according to findings released by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) today.

Among other findings from the survey:

  • Of the people who'd dated someone at work, 76 percent have dated a peer, 27 percent have dated a superior, and 21 percent have dated a subordinate.
  • 27 percent are in, or have been in, a workplace romance.
  • 19 percent have a "work spouse," a co-worker who seems almost like a marriage partner. Slightly more than half of the respondents with work spouses admitted they have romantic feelings for their workplace better halves.

Nearly 700 working Americans responded to the SHRM survey

But while Selena Gomez may have warbled that the heart wants what it wants, romance worries employers. Workplace romances can lead to accusations of favoritism when the relationship is going well or allegations of harassment and retaliation if things sour or feelings aren't reciprocated.

These are legal issues that organizations should be mindful of, said Lucy Garcia, senior HR business partner at Houston-based G&A, an HR services provider.

"The biggest issue to consider is the increased risk of sexual-harassment claims, hostile-work-environment claims, conflict-of-interest claims," she said. "Have a workplace romance policy in place and educate management regularly, but, more importantly, have a policy that prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination and enforce it fairly and evenly so that you are not accused of gender bias. Encourage employees to come forward and to feel safe from retaliation."

With the #MeToo movement raising national awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, employers have redoubled efforts to craft policies that create respectful cultures. Facebook and Google, for example, prohibit employees from asking the same co-worker out again after being turned down. And brushoffs, such as "I'm busy," count as a "no," The Wall Street Journal reported.

[SHRM members-only sample policy: Employee Dating]

"Employers simply can't forbid the reality of romance within the workplace," said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP. "Instead, they should reflect on their culture and ensure their approach is current, realistic and balanced in ways that protect employees while leaving them free to romance responsibly.

"This Valentine's Day, organizations need to re-examine their policies," he said. "They need to establish guidelines that get everyone—executives, employees and managers alike—taking care that heartaches don't become headaches."

Communicate Your Policy 

Some organizations have used "love contracts" that require couples to sign a document stating that their relationship is consensual, affirming their awareness of the company's sexual-harassment and workplace-ethics policies, and indicating that they understand the consequences if they fail to follow those policies.

"Legally speaking, a love contract is difficult to defend in court and difficult to manage and monitor in the workplace," Garcia said. "The signee could say [he or she] felt pressured to sign—[and] that's assuming that the two parties will come forward to report the relationship in the first place."

Instead, she recommends talking with the people involved, showing them the company policy and setting clear expectations of personal conduct. "Make sure they understand the policy and the potential consequences should they violate the policy," she said. "And always, always document the conversation."

Having the right policies in place will not prevent office romances from happening, Garcia acknowledged, but employees might be reluctant to pursue such relationships if doing so will put their jobs at risk. Some policies expressly prohibit relationships between managers and subordinates since such romances can lead to an unhealthy power dynamic, even if the relationship is consensual.

Steve Easterbrook was fired as CEO and president of McDonald's in November after the board found he violated company policy when he had a consensual relationship with an employee.

Whether a relationship is truly consensual can depend on the power dynamic of the people involved; the subordinate employee may say he or she felt compelled to go along with the relationship, noted Linda M. Jackson, partner at Arent Fox law firm in Washington, D.C.

"Companies are—and should be—concerned about claims of harassment, quid pro quo and retaliation when or if the 'consensual' relationship ends," Jackson said. "This is a very big issue in particular when one person is subordinate to the other, and especially when one person is an executive with significant power."

A policy such as McDonald's may not be common, but it's not necessarily a bad idea, she said.

"Companies understand the risk associated with those relationships, which can also include claims of favoritism from other employees."

Even office romances that end in wedding bells can lead to employment changes for the lovebirds.

"You may need to relocate one party or the other so they no longer work together," Garcia said. "If you can't find another position within the company for either of them, let them decide who leaves. If they don't decide, you must be prepared to make the decision and document the business purpose behind it."


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