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Guidance for office relationship policies

Over 60 percent of adults have had a workplace romance, according to results of a recent Forbes survey. That statistic amplifies the fact that employers cannot be ostriches that bury their heads and implement a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Doing so creates legal risk and exposes the company to lower employee morale if those relationships sour.

That begs the question: what should employers do? Here are four key points to consider when deciding whether your policies on office relationships need to be revamped to reflect modern workplace realities.

Corporate Cupids: Cracking the code of office romance trends

As I noted above, Forbes in its survey found participation in office romances at greater than 60 percent. Compare this to the SHRM research that revealed a lower number (between 27 percent and 34 percent in recent years). Regardless of the number, the percentage is high when considering the legal exposure such relationships could produce for your company.

Interestingly, SHRM’s research shows that the number of office romances went up during the pandemic despite the shift to remote work. And the Forbes survey found that while 43 percent of workers who dated a co-worker married their colleague, an astonishing 40 percent were cheating on their partner with someone at work.

What do these numbers mean for your workplace? Simply, no one works harder than corporate Cupids. Your company will want to develop a plan for handling the myriad issues that may arise.

Cupid’s fallout: Preparing for impact when endless love ends

Workplace romances present a tricky problem for employers and employees alike. Most employees would rather not have their employer telling them who they can and cannot date. But from an employer’s standpoint, the risks of workplace romances are clear. What begins as a harmonious relationship can easily turn toxic, which is especially problematic if the parties involved need to work together after a breakup.

The romance could also lead to gossip fodder in the workplace, lack of productivity, potential claims of disparate treatment, or worse, sexual harassment. Even healthy relationships can negatively impact co-workers’ morale if they are perceived as a distraction or result in favoritism.

Fortunately, there are many options available to employers to reduce risks when it comes to workplace relationships. In addition to implementing robust antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies and training, there are various types of anti-fraternization policies directed specifically at this issue.

Cupid’s quandary: Weighing the wings of workplace policies

Anti-fraternization policies offer choices for employers. Some opt for a blanket ban on all romantic relationships among employees, allowing discipline for those involved. However, such policies can harm morale, seem intrusive, and regulate personal off-duty conduct.

To address these issues, many policies target specific relationships, like those between supervisors and subordinates or within the same chain of command. These aim to prevent favoritism, harassment, or retaliation if the relationships sour.

Yet strict policies may have unintended consequences. Employees may still date despite rules. Enforcement of strict bans could drive relationships underground, making it hard to prove consent if issues arise. Thus, overly rigid policies may create more problems than they solve.

Cupid’s agreements: Embracing the power of “love contracts”

The prior three points establish that Cupid does not just use arrows; sometimes he uses land mines that are fraught with legal exposure. To address these issues, many employers have taken another route and have implemented permissive interpersonal relationship policies requiring employees involved in certain types of romantic or personal relationships to report them to the company immediately.

Rather than disciplining employees for such relationships, these policies encourage and require employees to come forward with the relationship at the earliest opportunity. As a result, employers can then remove any supervisory or managerial oversight between the employees involved in the relationship. Further, employers can require that the employees sign acknowledgments (sometimes called “love contracts”) attesting to the consensual nature of the relationship and agreeing that each would be responsible for notifying the company immediately if things were to change.

While Valentine’s Day is in our rearview mirror, the statistics show that no one works harder than Cupid. Now is the ideal time for a business to revisit its position on workplace romances, formulate a decisive plan of action, and attempt to outflank Cupid’s arrow.

Stephen Scott is a partner in the Portland office of Fisher Phillips, a national firm dedicated to representing employers’ interests in all aspects of workplace law.