Bill and Melinda Gates have been married for 25 years and have three children. They met at work. So too did Michelle and Barak Obama when she was supervising him as one of the firm’s new summer associates, from Harvard law.
Most of us spend more hours of our day at work than anywhere else, so it’s not surprising that romantic relationships develop. Namely HR Systems, found 41% of employees said they’d engaged in an intimate relationship with someone at work, whether a peer, manager or someone in the C-suite. 5% of employees said they’d had a relationship with their boss. Millennials were more likely than those from other generations to have had romances with bosses.
To some business owners, this feels like an ugly can of worms with concerns about favoritism, conflict of interests and even sexual harassment. We’ve had many responsible clients seeking guidance on this since the spate of sexual harassment claims began in 2017.
What can, and must companies do to protect themselves from issues of amorous employees?
1. Policy, Policy, Policy –Have one, make sure everyone knows what it is, and that people are empowered to speak up if they feel it is being violated. Decide the parameters; do you discourage romantic relationships between peers, clients supervisors, employees, suppliers? Some companies do, while others adopt a more laissez faire attitude. While banning office inter-office relationships may make the employer feel safe, be aware this can sometimes lead to loss of talented employees who choose heart over head.
2. Know Your State’s Laws – Even off-premises or on social media you may have a responsibility to ensure that your employees are not falling prey to unwanted advances and attention. Businesses can be liable if they don’t address potential harassment because employees might feel they’re in a hostile working environment. Know your state law as some states impede employers from interfering in legal activity taking place between consenting adults away from work. Keep your eyes and ears open to be able to be sensitive to anything untoward to ensure that you are keeping employees safe. Employees don’t always disclose office romances until something goes wrong. In fact, a mere 5% of workers said they would tell HR even if required to do so.
3. Love Contracts – Are written employee consent agreements, with the company as witness regarding workplace relationship conduct, and constitute an individualized non-harassment policy. Your HR Advisor or legal counsel can help you devise one. There are also Apps available that enable this type of agreement.
4. Company Complaints (Grievance) Procedures – Clarify and make clear to all employees what to do in the event they or someone else is being harassed, so that they know what avenue to take if problems arise.
5. Investigations – need to be carried out fastidiously and claims taken very seriously, without retaliation being tolerated against anyone, accuser, bystander or accused.
6. Training of Supervisors – Must take place in how to manage romantic relationships and attention or advances between co-workers. If supervisors know not only the rules, but also what the risk areas are, what to look out for and how to manage their employees dating (or especially when the relationship goes south) they can prevent unnecessary escalation of problems for the couple, the company and for themselves and their teams.
7. Emotional intelligence, respect and civility must be displayed in all cases and employers should make sure that they are speaking up from a place of concern emphasizing the well- being and safety of all stakeholders. This is not only well served vigilance, but an intrinsic responsibility of an employer.
With a healthy workplace culture of respect and civility where there are shared values, strong leadership and effective communication, there is no reason that even romantic relationship can’t be handled and nurtured. And, if you don’t have a company policy on office romances and would like advice, get one by consulting with an HR consultant.