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The Birds, The Bees, & Your Employees

An office romance is brewing

With February comes Valentine’s Day – as well as added pressure to find that special someone (or if you’ve already found them, to make sure that special someone still feels special). Singles may be on the search more than usual this month, but it’s important to remember that Cupid’s arrow can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. In fact, because so many people spend so much of their time at work – far more than they do with friends and family – it should come as no surprise when a romantic relationship blossoms at the office. And as an employer, you need to not only accept this reality, but also manage it in such a way that your organization isn’t negatively impacted. But how, you ask?

Just like romantic relationships themselves, managing romance between employees can be filled with complications, nuances, and pitfalls. But like romance, it’s also worth it. There are many approaches to dealing with workplace romances, and some are more suitable than others. However, every approach has the same goal: containing the consequences of canoodling colleagues, whether the couple in question lives happily ever after – or never after.

The pros of workplace romance

Some argue that workplace romance can have a positive effect on productivity. The theory states that the intimacy employees feel for each other will translate to increased cooperation, morale, and concern for the organization’s wellbeing. However, others would argue that this view is utopian; in a perfect world, everyone would meet the person of their dreams at work, no one would ever break up, and everyone would know how to keep their personal and professional lives separate. There’s a reason “utopia” literally translates to “good place” and “no place” at the same time.

The cons of workplace romance

Of course, there are more probable – and less favourable – outcomes when coworkers become romantically linked. Perhaps the most obvious is the resulting discord of a bitter breakup. None of the awkwardness, gossip, side-taking, and bickering is conducive to a productive workforce. Drama is costly, especially if it escalates to allegations of sexual harassment, which unfortunately it sometimes does. However, even if a relationship between two employees moves along smoothly, it can still have serious social – and legal – ramifications. If the couple in question is part of a larger team, and one of them is put in charge of a project, the other members of the team may perceive favouritism whether it’s actually there or not. In fact, in addition to sexual harassment litigation, intra-organizational affairs can lead to what can sometimes be known as “third-party” sexual harassment claims that allege a working environment turned toxic because of other people’s romantic involvements.

Forbidden love

It seems that the simplest and most obvious way to shield your organization from the fallout of workplace romance is to outright ban it; if you fool around, you get let go. However, such policies don’t always hold up, especially in court, because they can be interpreted as draconian invasions of privacy. Besides, since there’s no stopping attraction, “forbidden love” policies will only encourage secrecy and denial – and it’s much easier to deal with a relationship that everyone’s aware of and open about. So what’s the best approach?

Supervisor-subordinate relationships

Whether an organization is large or small, chances are it has a strict policy against supervisors entering into romantic relationships with subordinates. Such relationships can conjure up a host of unpleasant questions, including whether the relationship is truly consensual. However, taking hasty action can lead to unexpected legal ramifications as well. If, as an employer, you discover a romantic relationship has begun between a supervisor and a subordinate, be sure to consult your legal department before reacting.

Prudent policies, not prude policies

As touched on above, when it comes to romance between employees , particularly ones who are not in a chain of authority, banning passion Big Brother-style isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem. In fact, doing so could force you to try to define ambiguous terms, such as “romance”, “dating”, and “relationship”, which itself can be a headache. However, despite these challenges, you still need to protect your organization from egregious allegations and lawsuits of the lovelorn.

Some organizations have implemented what are commonly called “love contracts”, which are agreements (more than they are actual “contracts”) that both parties must sign, explicitly indicating that they are in an intimate relationship and that it is consensual. Some of these agreements go so far as to prohibit any future litigation against the organization and even stipulate which party will resign should the relationship end. However, despite the seeming convenience of love contracts, their legal enforceability is questionable.

The safest approach is to have clearly communicated, written policies that comprehensively address any sort of intimate involvement between employees. These policies should be covered in training sessions and should be easy for any employee to look up at any time. The clearer your organization’s stance is regarding workplace fraternization, the easier it is to hold your employees accountable for their actions, especially when their actions start to affect daily operations. Some such policies will specifically ban the kinds of fallout that relationships can cause. For instance, the strife from an intra-organizational romance can be deemed a conflict of interest, and the organization’s policy will actually prohibit the conflict of interest rather than the romance.

However, remember that whatever policies you employ, you must apply them consistently, regardless of the rank, seniority, sexual orientation, or marital status of those involved. Otherwise, you could unleash a flood of other serious legal allegations.

Have the talk

If it becomes obvious to you that two of your employees have become romantically linked, remember to keep your management of the situation objective and professional. Talk with each of them one-on-one, reinforce your organization’s policies, and don’t get personal in any way. You may like your employees and even feel you can offer helpful advice if they’ve hit a snag in their relationship, but as their employer it’s best for you and your organization to remain neutral. Think of it as a form of tough love.

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