When Love Leads to Marriage, What’s an Employer to Do?

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Feb 12, 2009
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Friendships and romantic relationships are a natural by-product of people spending a lot of time together—even if that time is spent at work. But employers should not be overly concerned when such relationships turn into committed partnerships or marriages, an expert suggests.

Dating in the workplace can be an issue for employers because of the risk that one employee will claim harassment if the relationship turns sour, says Zack Hummel, a partner in the New York office of Bryan Cave LLP. “However, if it eventually leads to marriage that’s sort of your safe harbor for harassment,” he told SHRM Online.

“Romance can be wonderful if it’s good but when there is conflict that’s where the issues are raised for employers,” Hummel says. In some cases conflicts may arise between the two individuals, making it difficult for co-workers to witness. But even if the couple is experiencing wedded bliss, suspicion can swirl around the relationship. This is most likely when there is some sort of power relationship or other close working relationship which causes co-workers to wonder if favoritism exists.

To minimize the possibility of conflict, some employers impose policies to address romantic relationships at work.

“I don’t necessarily recommend a blanket rule prohibiting close relationships in the same department, but some companies do,” Hummel adds. “I do encourage clients to have policies that prohibit those in close relationships from supervising each other.”

Some companies tell couples who work together that conflict will result in one of the pair being moved to another area of the organization—and that management reserves the right to pick which one it will be.

The existence of some sort of policy can help an employer anticipate and address issues that might arise when colleagues marry. For example, if a relationship ends in divorce or a restraining order is issued, an employer might be forced to take some sort of employment action to eliminate the impact the conflict has on the workplace.

For example, Hummel says a client who owns a chain of restaurants requires restaurant managers to tell the company if they are having a relationship with an employee and then accept a transfer to another location. Managers who don’t disclose such a relationship will be terminated.

Whether an organization should require so-called “love contracts” or not, depends on the organization and the nature of the workforce, Hummel says. When a relationship exists between a supervisor and subordinate, such a document can require the parties to acknowledge they are in the relationship voluntarily, for example, and that they understand the company has a complaint procedure for addressing harassment.

But Hummel says marriage alone isn’t cause for concern.

“If they are in the same department and you haven’t really known about it before, you might want to talk to them about favoritism and possible conflict,” he says, but if they have been dating for some time and the working relationship has been fine, the act of formalizing the relationship probably won’t change the workplace dynamic.

How Likely Is It?

Nearly a third (31 percent) of employees who have dated a co-worker subsequently married them, according to an annual office romance survey from the online job site CareerBuilder.com.

The CareerBuilder.com survey of more than 8,000 workers revealed that four out of ten (40 percent) respondents have dated a co-worker at some time during their careers, with 18 percent admitting to doing it twice or more.

Ten percent of respondents said they currently work with someone who they would like to date.

And love interests aren’t limited to peers. Of those respondents who dated a co-worker in the past year, 34 percent said they have dated someone with a higher position in their company. Of those who have dated a higher-up in the past year, 42 percent have dated their boss.

Workplace relationships form in a variety of ways, according to the survey. Twelve percent of workers said their relationships started when they ran into each other outside of work. Others said the relationship formed as a result of working late at the office (11 percent), going to happy hour (10 percent) or going to lunch (10 percent).

Other surveys report similar findings.

Vault’s 2009 Office Romance Survey found that 26 percent of respondents met their spouse or long-term significant other on the job.

And a January 2008 Spherion Workplace Snapshot survey found that among those workers who had a workplace romance, more than one-third (34 percent) dated for several months, 17 percent dated for several years, and nearly one-quarter (22 percent) resulted in marriage.

“Employees spend many hours interacting with co-workers, so it’s not unusual for romances to spark,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder.com, in a statement. “While workplace relationships may be more accepted these days, with 72 percent of workers saying they didn’t have to keep their romance a secret, it’s still important for workers to keep it professional and not let their relationship impact their work.”

But CareerBuilder found that negative repercussions can result, with 7 percent of workers saying they have left a job because of an office romance.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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