Workplace Romances Aren’t Necessarily a Problem if They Are Dealt With Appropriately

According to a recent poll by the Society for Human Resource Management, about a third of workers reported that they are or have been in a relationship with a coworker. The number is not surprising when you think about it. You often spend more time with your coworkers than with your friends or family, and the bonds you form with some of those coworkers naturally may blossom into something more than a professional relationship.

In that same poll, approximately 77% of workers reported that they did not tell their employer about their workplace relationship. That high number is a little more surprising. If you’re an employer, you want your employees to report these relationships to you. There are some good reasons why you need to know about workplace romances:

1. You want your workplace to be fair to everyone. If Jane is a supervisor and she is dating Joe, one of her direct reports, you are right to be concerned that Jane may be giving Joe special treatment. Even if she is not treating Joe differently, Jane’s other direct reports might still be worried they won’t be treated as well as Joe.

2. You want to maintain a professional atmosphere. You want your workplace to be productive and professional so employees can get their work done. You don’t want employees spending work time gossiping that Jane and Joe are…you know…in the supply closet. And you definitely don’t want Jane and Joe to be in the supply closet at work!

3. You want to protect your business from complaints and legal action. Let’s say things between Jane and Joe go south and one of them changes their story and complains that things were not consensual. Now you may need to conduct a sexual harassment investigation and even be at risk of getting sued, all of which are time consuming, distracting and potentially expensive.

While you may never eliminate the concerns that go with workplace romances entirely, you can reduce them by preparing and enforcing a good workplace relationships policy. Here are some tips for implementing such a policy:

1. Require employees to report all workplace relationships. Inform employees that they need to tell you about all workplace romances, no matter how serious or long-term they are. You cannot enforce a workplace relationship policy if you don’t know about the relationships! Don’t be judgy or create an atmosphere that discourages employees from reporting their relationships to you. Be as discreet as you can be so that employees are comfortable coming to you. When the employees report the relationship, go over your expectations for workplace professionalism with them. Consider having the employees acknowledge their relationship in writing, as it could be useful evidence down the road that both parties consent to the relationship.

2. Supervisors cannot be in relationships with direct reports. While workplace relationships frequently cause no problems at work, it’s usually a bad idea for supervisors to date the people they supervise. You are more likely to receive complaints of favoritism and you have to question whether the supervisor’s ability to supervise the other employee objectively is compromised. You may need to make some changes to your organizational chart to accommodate the relationship. 

3. Be proactive about addressing workplace issues connected to relationships. Once you are aware of workplace relationships, you typically don’t have to discourage them, but you should keep an eye on them. If they result in favoritism, lack of productivity or credibility, or inappropriate conduct in the workplace, then you need to step in and address these issues before they become more serious. As long as employees act professionally at work and follow your policy, there will hopefully be no problems, and they can see each other romantically outside the workplace. But you want your expectations of professionalism at work to be clear, and you want to be consistent in enforcing those expectations.

This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own lawyer on any specific legal questions you may have concerning your situation.

Barnes & Thornburg LLP is a national, Midwestern-based business law firm that strives for a more entrepreneurial and cost-effective approach both to client service and its own business. Read more Metropreneurial Legal Insights.