Love at work: dictating office dating?

What should you do about employees dating each other?

Sample employee handbooks almost always have conflict of interest policies that restrict inter-office romance. Lawyers frequently advise their clients to include no-fraternization policies. Sexual harassment lawsuits can destroy an organization. And most of use could tell a story or two about workplace love gone very wrong.

On the other hand, it feels overbearing and unrealistic to dictate employees’ dating lives, especially in a society where almost a third of us marry a co-worker and about twice as many of us date one. What can you do to protect your organization without playing the Love Police?

First, why have a policy at all? One reason is conflict of interest—romantic relationships may affect decisions or be perceived as doing so, especially if one of the parties is responsible for the other’s assignments, performance reviews, or compensation. Second, sexual harassment—-strict laws hold employers responsible for sexual harassment, and protracted and expensive lawsuits can be the result if an employee sues.

All nonprofits should have policies to prevent against these risks. Conflict of interest policies should restrict nepotism and can also require disclosure of intimate or familial relationships so that employers can determine if there is conflict of interest. Sexual harassment policies define and prohibit harassment and explain how the employer will investigate and respond to harassment complaints.

If you develop careful, clear conflict of interest and harassment policies, you probably don’t need a strict non-fraternization policy. Your conflict of interest policy should include the prohibition of supervisor/subordinate relationships. Remember,  there doesn’t have to be demonstrated favoritism or lack of objectivity, only the potential due to conflict of interest. Some HR specialists advise that policies also specifically address on-the-job behavior, such as limiting physical contact or personal exchanges that could make others uncomfortable. (An example is here.)

It has become increasingly common to require employees to report intimate relationships so that potential conflict of interest can be ruled out and/or employees can be re-assigned. The standard legal advice is for employers to protect themselves by reserving the right to terminate one of the employees if conflict of interest is identified and re-assignment is not possible. (Of course, it is difficult to say what constitutes an intimate relationship and at what stage disclosure should be expected. Most policies aren’t explicit about this.)

As for sexual harassment, policies should spell out detailed complaint procedures and clarify exactly how the employer will respond to complaints. The burden is on employers to demonstrate that immediate action is taken, that there are serious consequences for the perpetrator, and that retaliation is prohibitied. Sexual harassment policies also cover third parties, such as other employees who believe they are being affected by one person’s treatment of another.

In addition to harassment policies, many large corporations have “love contract” requirements that require employees to sign a document acknowledging that a workplace romance is consensual and waiving the right to claim sexual harassment for any event prior to signing the contract.  (You can view a few more samples here (PDF) and here.

Outright bans on office dating are largely on the wane. Prohibiting dating doesn’t prevent relationships from happening and can lead to problems by pushing them underground. From an employer liability standpoint, it may be harder to produce evidence that a relationship is consensual if there is ever a harassment claim than if it was out in the open.

Bottom line?  Policies should protect employers and employees, help maintain  morale and productivity, and be appropriate for the organizational culture.

Do you have a written policy on dating? Drop us a line—we’d love to know how your organization handles the risks and realities of on-the-job romance.

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