Avoiding Harassment at Work: Managing Office Romance

In the wake of high-profile firings and resignations for sexual misconduct and harassment, there has been much discussion about unwanted advances in the workplace. But what do managers and business owners need to know about consensual romantic relationships in the office?

A whopping 37 percent of U.S. workers have dated a coworker, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey – and about a third of those relationships led to marriage. Other notable findings:

  • Of those who dated at work, nearly one in four dated a superior – a more common occurrence for women than men (26 percent vs. 20 percent).
  • 17 percent involved at least one person who was married.
  • One-third said they had to keep their relationship a secret, but they may not have been all that successful; 65 percent of employees said they knew the relationship status of everyone in the office.
  • Sparks were most likely to fly working late nights at the office (12 percent), happy hour (10 percent), happenstance meetings (10 percent) and lunches (9 percent).

Workplace romance may be inevitable, but it can be a disruption, a liability and a personnel challenge; in the CareerBuilder survey, 5 percent of workers who had an office romance said they left a job after it ended.

As always, we’d counsel you to start with policy: Nearly half of the workers surveyed did not know whether their company had a dating policy in place. Because dating someone at work is gnarly business – even when the relationship is a healthy and welcome one – it’s helpful to have a foundation that articulates what is, and is not, appropriate and tolerated.

Some of our Frequently Asked Questions about dating at the office:

Can we just outlaw dating at the office?

With few state-specific exceptions, like California, it is legal for employers to forbid dating at the office. Non-fraternization policies effectively bar all romantic relationships among coworkers. Employers have sound reasons for wanting to limit at-work relationships, including fear that they will make other employees uncomfortable, or that the work culture will be negatively affected if the couple breaks up. A no-holds-barred policy is hard to enforce, though, and will be generally unpopular among employees.

What about managers and subordinates?

Even if your company, like most, decides to permit workplace dating, it’s prudent to have a policy that prohibits fraternization between supervisors and direct reports, or between executives and support staff. Allowing managers to date their reports risks, at a minimum, the appearance of favoritism or special treatment. Further, it can thwart the subordinate’s development if he or she is not properly reviewed, assessed and given feedback for improvement.

A practical policy will articulate the reasons for the rule and the path to request an exception.

What about breakups at the office?

As the song goes, breaking up is hard to do – especially at work. In practice, most companies arrive at a need to police coworker dating not because of the romantic relationship, but because of the later disentanglement.  Most people want to avoid their ex after a breakup, but that just may not be possible when you share a coffee pot, a lunch room and a copier.

Employees are always expected to behave professionally at the office, even when being at the office requires an employee to behave civilly to a former lover. Hopefully maturity and professionalism will prevail, and the former flames can continue to interact without issue; if not, observe and document the behavior, and address any squabbling.

Is love in the air at your office? Contact People People for help with a practical policy.