Workplace Romance Can Give Employers Heartburn

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek February 14, 2019
Workplace Romance Can Give Employers Heartburn

Working side by side on a common cause day in, day out, it's no surprise that co-workers sometimes become intimately involved. One in three U.S. adults are or have been in a workplace romance, according to a new poll from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Sometimes those pairings lead to happily ever after—a CareerBuilder survey of 809 working adults in the U.S. found that 31 percent of office romances resulted in marriage.  

      1 in 3 SHRM_WorkplaceRomance graphic.png

But not all relationships that begin in the office fare well.

"While many workplace romances are perfectly acceptable, there are instances when intimate relationships are out of bounds," such as when there is a power imbalance, said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM.

CareerBuilder found that 35 percent of female workers had dated someone at a higher professional level than themselves, and 27 percent dated their boss. Among men, 25 percent dated someone at a higher level than themselves, and 16 percent dated their boss.

That creates the potential for intimidation, retaliation or sexual-harassment claims, as well as real or perceived favoritism. There can be other consequences, too, for an employer—9 percent of women and 3 percent of men left a job after a relationship went sour, CareerBuilder found.

Valentine's Day is a good time for employers to look at their policies and make sure they are doing all they can to provide a safe environment for employees where unwanted sexual advances are prohibited. That includes focusing on bystander training to recognize, report and prevent harassment in the workplace, including harassment via social media.

Some organizations, like Facebook, have a "no means no" policy that prohibits one worker from asking another out again if the co-worker has already said no once before. While the company does not prohibit dating among workers, it says it wants an environment "where no one has to worry about avoiding unwanted invitations or unwelcome flirting."

Among the 1,010 workers SHRM surveyed in January 2019, 17 percent who never had a workplace romance refrained from pursuing one because they were concerned about potential sexual-harassment claims, with more men than women stating this.

Employers generally are liable for not taking prompt and remedial action to address a hostile work environment resulting from co-workers' sexual involvement, workplace attorney Gerry Filippatos said. He is a partner at Phillips & Associates and based in White Plains, N.Y. Employers also are strictly liable, he added, when employees are subjected to coercive sexual conduct by their supervisors.

"The best way for employers to handle workplace relationships is to hope for celibacy but prepare for intimacy among employees," said Filippatos and Erica Sanders, an associate at the firm.

Importance of Disclosure 

While employers can deter workplace romances by adopting and enforcing anti-fraternization policies, they also should realize that zero-tolerance policies are unrealistic, Filippatos and Sanders noted.

"For this reason, some organizations now opt for dating policies or 'love contracts' that set out a clear code of conduct and require employees to disclose their status as a couple to HR," they said.

Barclays, a United Kingdom banking establishment, updated its employee code of conduct to require employees to disclose personal work-based relationships, including those with contractors, suppliers, customers or clients.

[SHRM members-only sample policy: Employee Dating]

"Employees should be encouraged to disclose relationships," Taylor said. "This is the most effective way to limit the potential for favoritism, retaliation and sexual-harassment claims."

While disclosure may result in the employer's changing the roles or departments of one or both parties, the employer may simply make clear that the parties are not to let their relationship affect their work, he wrote in his USA Today column, "Ask HR," on Jan. 7, 2019.  

However, nearly one-third (28 percent) of employees involved in a workplace romance never disclosed it, SHRM found. Among those who did come clean, 32 percent said their company was supportive, and 29 percent said the employer was neither supportive nor unsupportive.

Neglecting to disclose an intimate work relationship to HR when the employer requires it, Taylor pointed out, could have dire consequences that could include a reprimand or termination for violating company policy.


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