As Valentine’s Day approaches, there’s an uptick in whiteboard hearts and watercooler gossip. Love is in the air alright, but chances are, it’s been there all year long: 56% of business professionals say they’ve been in relationships with coworkers. That percentage is on the rise, and it’s no surprise: we spend one-third of our lives at work.
So, is it possible to allow cupid’s arrows in the office—but steer clear of legal landmines?
In our lifetimes, we’ll spend 90,000+ hours at our jobs, and we build organic relationships with the people we see everyday. When it comes to meeting people, the office is the new village. “You get to see people at their best and at their worst,” says Helen Olen, co-author of Office Mate. “Whatever matters to you… what’s important to you, you get to see in an office.” This differs from casual meetups at bars or online where people may show only certain sides of themselves. Office relationships often also rise out of office friendships, in which mutual trust is already present.
Though traditionally maligned for reasons I’m about to get into, office romance can be beneficial for businesses. Frederick S. Lane III, author of The Naked Employee, sees employee dating as a way to increase employee engagement. He argues that co-worker couples spend more time at work, take fewer sick days, and are less likely to quit. Bloomberg Business reports that National Public Radio, Princeton Review, Pixar, and Southwest Airlines encourage in-house matchmaking for these reasons. In fact, Southwest Airlines counts 7% of its staff with spouses who also work for the company.
In an era of lawsuits, it’s wise for organizations to have a written or verbal employee dating policy. These policies clarify the company’s rules on relationships between coworkers, supervisors and subordinates, as well as employees and clients, vendors, and competitors. When it comes to employee dating, job title and department matter. According to a 2013 SHRM survey, only 32% of HR professionals think employers should have the right to prohibit office romance outright, but a whopping 95% voted to restrict romance between a supervisor and a direct report.
The way we view office romance is changing, alongside the blending of our personal and professional lives. More employees are dating each other, and fewer HR leaders view these relationships as unprofessional (just 29% in 2013, down from 58% in 2005). So why does office romance get a bad rep? The employee dating dynamic can cause distraction, morale issues and claims of real or perceived favoritism. When a workplace relationship goes south, the parties involved must still see each other every day in the office. This can lead to awkward encounters, and the potential for claims of sexual harassment and retaliation.
The biggest threat to office romance is the retaliation lawsuit. 22% of workers say they suffered retaliation after an office romance ended. Retaliation can take many forms: termination, shift changes, pay cuts, transfers, and other adverse actions have been found to be retaliatory. Over the past 10 years, retaliation claims grew 70%—and are now the most common type of complaint with the EEOC.
In some states, privacy laws prevent an employer from restricting employee relationships—unless a conflict of interest is involved. A romantic relationship between a supervisor and subordinate provides the potential for a conflict and the opportunity for the employer to require a love contract. Consensual relationship agreements or “love contracts” are signed documents indicating that an office romance is consensual, and the employees will not engage in favoritism or take legal action against the employer or each other if the relationship ends. “Having people dating each other can wreak havoc on an organization, especially a small organization,” says Lynn D. Lieber, an employment law attorney and founder of Workplace Answers. “Love contracts help maintain a functional office environment.”
Here’s 6 more tips to keep the office running smoothly when love is in the air.
1. Establish an employee dating policy. When designing the policy, choose between full freedom, freedom with restrictions, or freedom with disclosure. As supervisor/subordinate relationships can create actual or potential conflicts of interest, it is common for policies to restrict them or require those involved to disclose the relationship to HR. No one wants to feel policed, so keep the employee dating policy focused on the specific behaviors that disrupt the office vs. abstract rules and regulations.
2. Broadcast your sexual harassment policy. Have a formal sexual harassment policy posted in the office and included in your employee handbook. Train employees that the company has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and require employees to sign a document indicating they understand the policy. Additionally, use of love contracts is a way to mitigate risk of sexual harassment liability.
3. Train managers and supervisors. Managers and supervisors should be comfortable coaching co-worker couples if their behavior results in low morale or productivity. They should apply policy consistently and take measures to avoid real or perceived favoritism. In some states, the interpretation of sexual harassment laws includes third parties: If an employee views a supervisor as favoring a subordinate, the employee can sue the company.
4. Encourage transparency and squash gossip. Office relationships often inspire gossip, which can impede productivity and damage careers. Promote an open, transparent environment, so that employees are less inclined to hide their relationships—and coworkers are less likely to gossip.
5. Make it easy to report inappropriate activity. Sexual comments and disruptive behavior can render a workplace uncomfortable and unproductive. Managers and supervisors need to be familiar with the company’s disciplinary actions and empowered to enforce them. Employees should feel OK reporting activity that puts the company at risk.
6. Get Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI). Lawsuits brought by employees against their employers are on the rise, and small businesses are not immune. An EPLI endorsement to a small business commercial policy can help protect businesses in the case of a retaliation lawsuit. Ask your broker if EPLI is right for you.