Mixing Business With Pleasure: Dating Policies in the Workplace

In this day and age, every company should enact a workplace dating policy, or review or update its current policy.  In the absence of a dating policy or when there is an unclear policy, an office relationship can have harmful effects.  For instance, if the couple’s relationship acrimoniously ends, employers may face legal consequences including charges of sexual harassment.  Employers need to understand that maintaining a harmonious and productive work environment is vital to a company’s profitability and success.  Hence, it is essential that employers enact or revise their company’s dating policies.

Based on the amount of time most people spend at work, it is likely a couple would meet at work.  The workplace is a unique environment that provides a pre-selected pool of people who share one important area of common ground:  the workplace.  It is also likely that coworkers will date because they see each other every day and live within a reasonable distance from their office and each other.

There are various consequences that stem from workplace romances.  Aside from the legal consequences that may arise out of dating in the workplace, interoffice relationships also include other potential pitfalls prompting employers to ban coworkers from dating.  Employers may fear:

  • Favoritism: This is a risk if one partner in the relationship is in a supervisory position or otherwise has the ability to grant favors for the other.
  • Productivity losses: These may arise if there is too much time spent on personal pursuits rather than work.  Office relationships may also create gossip and become a distraction for other employees.
  • Retaliatory behavior: If the relationship ends badly, the ex-couple may not choose to work amicably with each other.  Further, if the animosity escalates and one former partner has the ability to give negative reviews, demote, or terminate the other, the company may face potential lawsuits.
  • Security issues: It is possible that a personal romantic dispute may become violent.
  • Reputation damage: If a relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate is discovered, this could not only damage the both of their reputations, but could lead to loss of confidence from shareholders or clients.
  • Turnover: As a result of relationship problems, there is a greater chance that one or both of the partners will choose to leave the company to remedy the situation.  Moreover, this is also a concern when the relationship is going well because a partner may feel their options are limited at the company because of the relationship.

However, a complete ban on any workplace romantic involvement carries its own consequences.  Many people meet at work before they initiate a romantic relationship.  Enacting a total prohibition on inter-company dating can decrease morale and possibly result in the loss of employees who wish to date coworkers but cannot.  Practically speaking, this type of dating policy is incredibly difficult to enforce and this type of policy is seen as onerous, overreaching and intrusive.

Employers should enact a dating policy that will reduce potential legal liability.  Short of banning all workplace dating, an employer may limit the prohibition to only those relationships in which one romantic partner has a role of authority over the other or where one partner must directly report to the other partner.  This type of policy will minimize the risks associated with interoffice dating.

A common stipulation included in a workplace dating policy is to simply discourage workplace romances.  This alone may be enough to avoid some of the issues inherent in interoffice dating, but it stops short of being a complete prohibition.

Employers may also choose to prohibit employees from dating coworkers in the same department as each other.  Essentially, each partner in the relationship would not work directly with one another.

Another option in a dating policy may include a notification or disclosure of a relationship policy.  This policy would require the couple to report whenever they enter into a consensual relationship.  This type of policy will also help protect the company from later charges that the relationship was not consensual and constituted sexual harassment.  After disclosure, employers can take steps to minimize the problems associated with dating in the workplace.  For instance, employers may have couples sign acknowledgments stating they will act professionally and not act like a couple at work.  Employers can also outline the consequences of breaking the rules required of couples in the workplace.  Additionally the couple would be required to notify the employer when the relationship ends.  Since a notification and disclosure policy may seem intrusive, the manager or supervisor to whom the employees are reporting the relationship to must be required to not disclose any information provided by the couple to protect their privacy.

Whatever type of dating policy your company implements, that policy must be drafted clearly and communicated to all employees, supervisors and managers.  Moreover, it is important for such dating policy to be enforced fairly and consistently – not in a way that discriminates.  For instance, if the dating policy requires that one of the partners must leave the company if a relationship is discovered, it cannot always be the woman who is forced to leave.

Employers should also training their managers and supervisors on how to enforce the dating policy.  Enacting a formal policy does not require that a manager must write someone up every time he finds out about a casual date.  However, that manager must act immediately if productivity is affected, if there are complaints from other employees, or if conflict and gossip relating to the relationship is tearing a department apart.

Employers must realize that enacting a dating policy is not merely drafting the terms of the policy to be included in a handbook.  Absent communication to employees regarding the standards they are expected to follow and adequate training of managers and supervisors on how to enforce the policy, a dating policy merely included in your handbook is not adequate or sufficient.  Employers must follow through with all aspects of implementing a dating policy to maintain a productive and healthy workplace environment.

 

Article Prepared By:

Rita DeStefano, Director, HR Consulting

 



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