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How Should Employers Handle Workplace Romances?

In light of the #MeToo movement, office romances may seem like they are quickly becoming a thing of the past. But even if the number of people in workplace relationships is gradually decreasing, it is still far too high for employers to ignore.

At the end of last year, an online Harris Poll survey sponsored by CareerBuilder asked 809 private sector employees across the U.S. about office romances. The survey reported a "10-year low" of people who said they have dated a coworker - 36 percent of respondents. This may be lower than the previous year's finding of 40 percent, but that doesn't mean employers no longer need to worry about their employees dating each other.

The dangers of workplace relationships

Almost a third of people who said they'd dated a coworker ended up getting married to that person, according to the Harris Poll findings. But many workplace relationships do not end well, creating uncomfortable working environments and the potential for claims of sexual harassment.

Even consensual relationships can cause problems in the workplace if other workers believe a colleague is receiving preferential treatment because of their romantic relationship with a superior. Many employers prohibit relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate for this reason.

What should your policy on employee relationships look like?

Despite the risks associated with employees dating each other, there are also reasons some businesses may decide against heavily regulating employee relationships; for example, an overly restrictive policy could turn out to be bad for morale. It is a good idea to work with an employment lawyer to draft a policy that protects the best interests of your business as well as your employees.

Some of the types of policies you may wish to consider include:

  • A strict "no dating" policy that forbids any employee from dating any other employee, with exceptions for married employees
  • A policy that only prevents employees in certain work relationships from dating - for example, forbidding supervisors from dating their own subordinates, or forbidding people on the same team from dating each other
  • A requirement that employees sign an agreement stating that their relationship is consensual and that they will not let their relationship affect their work or the workplace

Any policy concerning employee relationships needs to be carefully drafted, with clearly defined terms. Does going on a single date count as "dating"? If so, what about going out for drinks after work? All employees should be clear on what types of behaviors are forbidden, the penalties for violating the policy, and the line between consensual relationships and sexual harassment.

With the #MeToo movement, and heightened sensitivity around these issues in the workplace, employers may wish to take this opportunity to review their policies on workplace harassment and safety, to make sure they are legally compliant and have proper procedures in place to prevent and remedy any potential problems or complaints.

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