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Forbidden love: Workplace-romance policies now stricter

The number of romances blooming at work may not have increased much in the past eight years, but company policies addressing them sure have, according to a new survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Moreover, those policies are a lot stricter today than they were in 2005, the last time SHRM conducted its Workplace Romance survey of HR professionals.

“People tend to look at workplace romance as a kind of fluffy topic, but for organizations, they’re taking them more seriously,” said Evren Esen, manager of SHRM’s Survey Research Center. “There only has to be one situation of a workplace romance gone bad to convince an HR department to adopt a policy.”

More than twice as many employers have written or verbal polices on office romances than in 2005, reported SHRM, which canvassed 380 HR professionals July 9-26, 2013. In 2005, 20% of respondents had such policies; in the most recent survey, 42% did.

This, even though the vast majority of respondents (67%) said the number of romances among employees has stayed the same in the past eight years.

“More and more companies have implemented policies because they realize they aren’t going to stop people from having romantic relationships,” said Christine Amalfe, an attorney in Gibbons P.C.’s litigation and employment and labor law departments. “They want to best protect the company from a claim of sexual harassment and ensure there’s no favoritism or conflict, which could hurt productivity and impact morale.”   

Love goes public

How are workplace lovebirds usually discovered?

Typically, supervisors or HR professionals hear about them through office gossip, said 67% of respondents, or because the couple or their colleagues report the romance to the HR department, said 61%. One in four (25%) hears about the relationship from an anonymous tipster, and almost one in four (23%) learn of it from the couple’s business unit leader.

More than half of work romances (53%) are between employees in different departments, and nearly one-third (32%) are between workers of the same rank, the survey found. Nearly one in six (16%) can be classified as “affairs,” because one or both of the romantic partners already have spouses or significant others. Fewer than one in 10 (8%) happen between a supervisor and direct subordinate or between employees of significantly different rank, such as between a chief executive and a manager.

More than half of HR professionals said the office romances at their organizations led to marriage or a long-term relationship. 

Forbidden love

Almost every respondent whose company had a workplace-romance policy (99%) said love matches between supervisors and subordinates are not allowed. That’s up from 80% in 2005 and 64% in SHRM’s 2001 Workplace Romance survey. Almost half of these policies (45%) forbid romances between employees of significantly different rank, a significant jump from 16% in 2005.

Typically, these prohibitions are designed to protect the company from sexual harassment lawsuits if the relationship ends and the subordinate claims the supervisor or higher-ranking colleague is making unwanted advances.

“In addition to a sex harassment claim, there are a variety of torts that can be alleged,” said Edward Harold, a partner practicing employment litigation at Fisher & Phillips, LLP. “For example, if one party claims the relationship was not consensual, she can include claims of assault and battery, false imprisonment and defamation. These allow her to sue the individual in the same suit with the company. That creates a potential conflict of interest between the employer and the employee and increases the cost of litigation if the employer is in a position where it feels the need to pay for a defense on behalf of the individual.”

Supervisor-subordinate romances are also problematic because they can spark complaints of favoritism. In fact, 40% of survey respondents said employees complained about favoritism between co-workers in a romantic relationship. Such perceptions can damage office morale, the survey authors wrote. And there can be unforeseen consequences, too, said Jean Baur, author of The Essential Job Interview Handbook (Career Press, 2013).  

“Romance can lead to gossip, hurt feelings, unfair advantages -- the girlfriend gets promoted, while the one doing most of the work doesn't -- and so on,” she said. “I have one friend who ended up marrying the president of the company where she worked. Other employees who didn't dare complain directly to the president filled her ears with their grievances. This does not create a healthy work environment.”

Yet plenty of companies forbid intimate relationships even when there aren’t supervisory concerns. About one-third of organizations prohibit romances between employees who report to the same supervisor or between an employee and a client or customer, both up from 13% in 2005. Almost one in 10 (11%) also don’t allow romances between their employees and those of competitor organizations, up from 4% in 2005.

And more than one in 10 (12%) won’t even allow workers in different departments to pair up.

Respondents said they worry that office romances will lead to public displays of affection; inappropriate sharing of confidential company information between romantic partners; inappropriate gossiping among co-workers; less productivity from the couple and their colleagues; and damage to the organization’s image because the pairing may be seen as unprofessional.

“The main focus of employers is to keep their employees effective and productive,” said Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options. “If people are caught up in the drama or the whirlwind of a new romance, there is a legitimate concern for how it might negatively impact productivity.” 

Unlucky in love

What should HR professionals do if co-workers break an organization’s policy and pair up anyway?

Respondents said that in the past five years, they’ve resorted to one or more of these consequences: Transfer one employee to a different department (34%); send the couple to relationship counseling (32%); draw up a formal reprimand (21%); fire the offending workers (20%); remove a worker from a supervisory position (12%); suspend the employees (8%).

“Employers who want a great working environment for their employees need to prohibit all types of conduct in the workplace that can foster dissension and turmoil,” Harold said. “The correct professional and social relationship among employees fosters productivity.”

Despite concerns about office romances, more than eight in 10 respondents (81%) said their organization doesn’t train employees on how to manage workplace romances. And only 5% of organizations ask those in a romantic relationship to sign a “love contract,” which indicates that the relationship is consensual, that the pair won’t engage in favoritism and that neither will take legal action against the employer or each other if the relationship ends.

However, most HR professionals (75%) consider these contracts “ineffective and say that it actually encourages workers to hide the relationship from peers,” the survey authors wrote.

“The reason more employers don’t use love contracts is that [HR professionals] are trying to balance the increasingly difficult question of the dividing line between work-related issues and employees’ personal issues,” Harold said. “For most, becoming directly involved in a consensual relationship between two employees seems to cross that line. It is awkward and uncomfortable. It is much easier to prohibit the conduct in the first instance than it is to ride out the relationship with all the attendant risks.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

© 2013, Society for Human Resource Management.

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