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Romance at Work: Employees Don't Trust HR to Keep Their Secret

Many workers refuse to disclose intimate relationships, even if company policy requires it

A man and woman are sitting at a desk in an office.

​Four in 10 people have engaged in workplace romances, yet precious few of them confided in HR about it—even if their company policy required formal disclosure, according to a new survey from Namely.

And even if disclosure was required, men were twice as likely as women to avoid telling HR about their workplace romances.

In light of the #MeToo movement protesting sexual harassment, especially at work, romances between co-workers have taken on new significance and liability.

"With the average workweek rounding out to over 47 hours, work has become such a big part of our lives," said Julie Li, senior director of people operations at Namely, which offers HR software and services to midsize companies. "It's no surprise that workplace relationships are so common. As HR, supporting employees is not just about having a policy in place. HR should be accessible and trusted … particularly in cases when love at work has a negative impact." 

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How Romance Affects Productivity and Promotions

Namely surveyed 515 U.S.-based full-time employees in February. The study authors sought to uncover how prevalent intimate relationships are in the workplace, how employees feel about dating co-workers, the impact such romances have on job performance and what HR's role should be regarding dating policies.

"Amidst the global conversation around workplace harassment, it's more important than ever to acknowledge the frequency of these relationships and for HR to become a trusted resource for employees," Li said.

Workplace romance appears to be pretty common, Namely found. Four in 10 employees (41 percent) said they'd engaged in an intimate relationship with someone at work, whether a peer, manager or someone in the C-suite. Five percent of employees said they'd had a relationship with their boss, and Millennials were more likely than those from other generations to have had romances with bosses.

Of those who had been in a relationship at work, 70 percent said it didn't change anything about their productivity. Fifteen percent said it decreased their productivity, while 14 percent said it increased their productivity.

Five percent of those involved in workplace romances said that the biggest impact it had on their careers was that they won a promotion because of the relationship—implying that they may have been in a relationship with a superior who showed them favoritism because of their intimacy.

Employees gave mixed reviews on how HR should respond to a manager dating a direct report. Thirty-four percent said the manager should be transferred to another department or location, while 29 percent said the direct report should be transferred.

Deep Distrust of HR  

About 6 in 10 respondents said their companies didn't have policies on workplace relationships.

"While I don't advocate legislating 'love,' I believe companies can put guardrails in place to minimize risk and acknowledge that people who spend significant time together at work could become romantically involved," said Leesa Schipani, SHRM-SCP, a partner and HR consultant with KardasLarson LLC, based in Avon, Conn. "This even happens to HR professionals—I am one who met her husband at work."

Whether or not companies required employees to tell HR about intimate relationships at work, a mere 5 percent of workers said they would do so.

Why so few? Perhaps because about half of employees (49 percent) said they had "below average" trust in HR to keep their workplace romances confidential, Namely found. On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most trustworthy, only 14 percent of employees gave HR the top rating.

"We uncovered a variety of reasons that employees may lack trust in HR," Li said. "For one, HR has been subject to an array of stereotypes, such as [that it's] 'the compliance department.' This can make employees feel an us-versus-them mentality and as a result feel the need to protect themselves from the watchful eye of HR. There is also a fine line HR professionals must walk between being friends and being friendly with employees to avoid the appearance of favoritism. Finally, romantic relationships can be very personal, so employees may feel inclined to keep their relationships private from colleagues, regardless of policy or protocol."

On the other hand, 6 in 10 respondents said that in the wake of highly publicized sexual-harassment allegations against politicians, CEOs and celebrities, their companies are "well" or "outstandingly" prepared to handle a sexual-harassment situation. About 6 in 10 also said they've been required to take sexual-harassment training at work.  

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