Navigating the Potentially Troubled Waters of Office Romance

Many such relationships in the workplace may start out consensually, but things can go haywire when one party decides to end it. When that happens you will find yourself navigating the potentially troubled waters of office romance.

Valentine’s Day has come and gone. I hope you behaved yourself in the workplace.

When it comes to workplace romance, both employees and employers often struggle with the ongoing confusion surrounding the wisdom of pursuing such an entanglement. Employees get mixed messages from hearing about office romances blossoming into marriages and others ending in horror stories of the destruction of both personal and professional lives.

Why Should an Employer Care?

Why should an employer care so much about workplace romance? Isn’t that our business?

Money! Although a company cannot control matters of the heart, it does have a legitimate interest in its bottom line.

The biggest hazard for a company is the potential financial risk of litigation when romantically involved employees directly report to each other. I call this the Triple R (Reporting Romantic Relationship). The imbalance of power between a supervisor and a subordinate makes a sexual relationship potentially coercive, not consensual, and consequently can spell big-time trouble. These brokenhearted lawsuits are usually expensive and embarrassing.

Many such relationships in the workplace may start out consensually, but things can go haywire when one party decides to end it. The big issue here is disparity in power and authority. Add to that the numerous other potential consequences, including perceived and/or actual favoritism, damage to reputation, job loss and even blackmail.

We all know we can’t kill Cupid, outlaw love or legislate romance. Stuff happens. And, what better place to find your partner than the workplace? It beats the bar scene or online dating — as in you have the opportunity to get to know each other better and in real time. But, cautions remain before taking the plunge.

Employee Office Romance Cautions

1. Don’t look up and don’t look down the organizational chart. Don’t mess around with your boss and don’t mess around with your employee.

2. Dating a co-worker who is a peer is possible, provided you do not bring the romance and/or the messiness of a breakup into the office.

3. Be realistic. Ask yourself the loaded question: If this relationship goes south, can I still go to work each day and see him/her?

4. Keep your relationship private until you are ready to publicly announce you are a couple.

5. Keep your professional and personal lives separate. And, make sure you and your partner are on the same page.

6. Be sensitive to your co-workers. Discuss nothing about your relationship. Your co-workers are not particularly enthralled when they find themselves in the middle of someone’s domestic drama.

7. Never carry on romantic discussions or electronic communication, flirt, or display physical or sexual behavior on the job. This behavior affects your co-workers and has the potential to be perceived as a harassment situation for them.

8. Do not use company funds to entertain your partner. Even a lunch out can be perceived as unfair and favoritism by other colleagues.

9. If the relationship ends, don’t use other co-workers and/or company grounds, equipment, or time as a forum to express your hurt and anger.

10. Just as you should not use work time to engage in romantic activities, neither should you use it to try to win back your ex or engage in retribution.

11. Stay professional at all times. Do not let your relationship diminish your productivity or your reputation.

Organizational Office Romance Practices

An organization cannot ban employees from having relationships, nor should they attempt to do so. But, organizations can manage them by establishing the following practices:

1. Establish a written policy that prohibits employees from dating direct subordinates or bosses and that clearly states the consequences of failing to comply. Have a legal professional review these policies to ensure compliance with federal, state and local laws.

2. Alert employees to this policy, and inform them of the reasons for enforcement.

3. Encourage employees to promptly report any harassment they experience or observe, and follow your company’s procedures for dealing with such complaints.

4. Unconditionally and uniformly enforce this policy — endorsing your company’s strong commitment to investigate and take immediate and appropriate corrective action for misbehavior.

5. Conduct periodic compliance training so employees clearly understand your policies and commitment to a harassment-free environment.

Finally, Stacey A. DeKalb, who leads the employment-law practice at Lommen Abdo in Minneapolis said: “In some smaller companies where there has been a disclosed consensual relationship, I have even drafted what is called a ‘love contract’ where the parties confirm the consensual nature of the relationship and agree to inform a designated person of any changes. Such contracts should also address workplace behaviors and a modified reporting alignment to ensure no favoritism and/or retaliation.”

The heart will always remain a vulnerable organ. A company today can legally prevent romantically involved couples from working for each other but not with each other. As long as this is the case, Corporate America will never truly be able to ban Cupid from the cubicle.

** This blog post was originally printed in the 2/17/2020 issue of the Minneapolis Star/Tribune.  **

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