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Ask an Expert: Should Employers Establish a Policy on Romantic Relationships in the Office?

A well-developed policy can ease anxiety among employees and managers alike.

A couple holding hands in front of a white background.

​It's February, and love is in the air—along with a continuing stream of high-profile sexual harassment cases. To ensure that the two never get mixed up, the time is right to address office romance. Fifty-seven percent of individuals responding to Vault's 2017 Office Romance Survey admitted to having had a romantic relationship at work. So instead of ignoring when Cupid strikes, be transparent and proactive by drafting clear guidelines.

According to a SHRM survey on office romance, at least 42 percent of employers have regulations in place addressing workplace romance. Why wouldn't an employer have such a policy? In some cases, it's because leaders don't want to be in the business of policing romantic relationships. Others rely on their organization's sexual harassment policy to handle any problems that crop up. Whatever the case, it's to your advantage to have a dating policy. 

For one thing, it eases anxiety among employees and management alike. Supervisors feel better because they know what to do if a romance springs up on their team, while employees understand what is expected of them if they decide to board the love train. Such policies can also demonstrate an employer's good-faith effort to comply with sexual harassment laws. 

And they may help to head off other employees' complaints. After all, who wants to watch Ken and Barbie make out in the lunchroom? Lastly, well-thought-out policies may deter employees from lying about a matter of the heart. Let's face it: Hiding a romantic relationship can be stressful. 

Here are a few points to consider when developing a dating policy:

  • Decide whether to include any restrictions, such as prohibiting relationships between employees and direct reports or between colleagues in the same department. Check to see if any lifestyle discrimination laws apply in your state, and review marital status protections under anti-discrimination statutes. 
  • List any requirements for employees to report their workplace relationships to a supervisor or human resources representative. 
  • Weigh whether to ask the two parties to sign a consensual relationship agreement. Among other things, such contracts would acknowledge that the social relationship between two people does not violate your company's sexual harassment policy and that entering into the social relationship has not been made a condition or term of employment.
  • Spell out consequences of nonadherence, such as discipline up to and including termination.
  • Communicate conduct expectations, such as discouraging couples from engaging in public displays of affection and asking them to maintain the confidentiality of company information.
  • Highlight potential problems that can stem from workplace relationships, such as sexual harassment, and review how to report complaints. 
  • Include a section in which the employee acknowledges reviewing the policy. 

You can tweak your guidelines to meet your business's needs. And, of course, ask legal counsel to review your policy—and then let Cupid's arrows fall where they may.

Theresa Adams, SHRM-SCP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.

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