Is Love in the Air at Your Workplace?

By By Bill Leonard Feb 13, 2013

Even though many employers discourage it and some even have policies prohibiting it, love is in the air in most workplaces. A recent survey of workers by CareerBuilder found that nearly 40 percent of respondents had dated a co-worker at least once in their career and nearly 20 percent had dated a co-worker at least twice.

Those numbers actually sound a bit low to Jonathan Yarbrough, a partner in the Asheville, N.C., law office of Constangy Brooks & Smith.

“My guess is that it would be closer to half or maybe a little bit higher than that,” Yarbrough said. “I met my first wife at work, and I know several other people who met their spouses or partners at the office.”

Yarbrough specializes in developing employment policies for his clients and has led several seminars on how employers should manage workplace romances.

“It’s a very popular topic around this time of year because of Valentine’s Day,” he said. “While most larger employers have their policies set and have offered training courses to their managers and supervisors, interest level from smaller employers does pick up a bit as we approach February 14th.”

Company policies on workplace romances vary, depending on corporate culture and industry. While some businesses do have policies that ban fraternization among employees, Yarbrough said many have discovered that such policies are tough to enforce.

“To make a policy like this work, you have to enforce it, and some businesses do,” he noted. “It does take some effort, though. And it’s pretty useless to have a policy in place and then do nothing to back it up. In those cases you really need to ask yourself, why do we have this policy, then?”

Most businesses that allow employees to date other members of the company have policies that prohibit those in romantic relationships from working in the same department or having a direct-report supervisory role to each other. Romantic entanglements gone bad can be very volatile, and the risk of sexual-harassment claims in these situations is high. Increasingly, employers are taking care to avoid these problems and seeking the help and guidance of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to train employees and managers on how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

The EEOC doesn’t track the number of inquiries it receives from employers in the period leading up to Valentine’s Day, but agency statistics show that sexual-harassment prevention is a hot topic. In 2012 the EEOC held 432 training events around the U.S., which attracted more than 28,000 attendees.

“I certainly recommend to my clients that they offer employees sexual-harassment-prevention training and then repeat that training at least every 18 months to two years,” said Yarbrough. “It’s also a good idea to review your company’s policies on sexual harassment and workplace relationships.”

He added that awareness of these issues typically rises around Valentine’s Day because of all the news stories about the holiday. “So it might be a good time to use that awareness to review corporate policies and remind employees what your company’s policies are.”

Today’s workplace can pose some interesting challenges to employers as they try to apply policies to a much wider range of nontraditional relationships. Since a growing number of businesses have broadened their diversity and inclusion programs to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers, the possibility of same-sex dating has increased. The EEOC recognizes same-sex harassment and has filed charges against employers that did nothing to stop it.

“Things have definitely changed in the workplace from 10 or 15 years ago,” Yarbrough observed. “All these different relationships and possibilities can be confusing and maybe a bit overwhelming, and employers that have well-crafted policies that they administer consistently and fairly should be in good shape.”

To help smaller businesses cope with the challenges of workplace romances, the Legal Center of the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington, D.C., published the following checklist:

*Understand your obligation to prevent harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace.

*Be on high alert for supervisor-subordinate relationships. These can be among the most dangerous, legally, for employers.

*Don’t be afraid to speak up. While you might be loath to step into what’s perceived as a personal issue, you shouldn’t hesitate to put a stop to behavior that interferes with a professional environment.

*Be consistent. The same rules need to apply to everyone.

*Have an open-door policy. While it’s unrealistic to prohibit workplace dating, establish an open policy that makes it easy for employees to talk about these issues.

Bill Leonard, a senior writer, met his wife when they both worked at SHRM.

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