Valentine’s Day offers an annual reminder to every employer that Cupid’s arrow can strike at the workplace. According to certain studies, 25 to 50 percent of employees have been a part of a workplace romance. This might not be surprising given the amount of time employees spend with each other, in many cases over the course of several years, and the bonds that can form among and between coworkers who share common interests and experiences, whether professional or personal in nature.
So what can employers do to manage romantic and personal relationships when “love is in the air” at the workplace?
Employers may consider implementing a personal relationship policy to address the subject of workplace romances. Even if not required by law, having a written policy in place can be viewed as a best practice. A policy that clearly and effectively provides employees with guidance as to what is permitted and what is prohibited with respect to workplace romances, as well as the consequences for violations of the policy, can be beneficial to management and nonmanagement employees alike.
Personal relationship policies will vary by employer. Generally, such policies should cover the following key points:
- State whether romantic or personal relationships involving managers or supervisors and nonmanagement employees are permitted or prohibited. Many employers prohibit individuals from having a romantic relationship with employees who are in their “reporting line.” Other employers prohibit individuals from having a romantic relationship with any supervisor or manager, even if there is no reporting relationship between them. In both circumstances, the general purpose of such a prohibition is to avoid situations, whether actual or perceived, in which the individuals’ personal relationship influences their working relationship, for better or worse. Some employers have taken an alternative approach by permitting romantic relationships between management and nonmanagement employees – provided that the employees enter into a written acknowledgement of the relationship, which is sometimes referred to as “love contract.” A so-called “love contract” is commonly intended to outline the employees’ responsibilities, acknowledge that the relationship is consensual, and affirm the employees’ understanding of the employer’s workplace romance policy, sexual harassment policy, complaint reporting procedures, and other applicable workplace policies. The “love contract” might also include an agreement by the involved manager or supervisor to withdraw from making any employment decisions impacting the other involved employee, including, for example, decisions concerning evaluations, promotions, demotions, compensation, discipline, and termination. The concept of a “love contract” may be viewed as controversial and subject to scrutiny. Therefore, employers are advised to consult legal counsel before implementation.
- State whether romantic or personal relationships are permitted or prohibited when involving coworkers who are not in a reporting relationship at work. Employers may be more inclined to permit romantic or personal relationships between employees who are not in a reporting relationship at work or cannot otherwise influence decisions affecting their significant other’s employment. Other employers, however, might still have reservations about such relationships for reasons similar to those in the preceding note. In particular, employers who implement a blanket prohibition against workplace romances of any kind tend to be interested in avoiding any potential rumors or chatter, discomfort, tension, jealousy, or other ill feelings among the workforce that ultimately can disrupt or adversely impact business.
- State that the involved employees should maintain a professional relationship in all work environments and at all work functions (including off-site events). Employers should emphasize this important point in any workplace romance policy. Employers should also make clear that professionalism must be maintained in both good and bad times during the personal relationship, including at its beginning, throughout its duration, and, perhaps most challenging, in the event the relationship ends.
- State clearly the consequences of violations of the policy. Any personal relationship policy should clearly set forth the potential consequences for any violation of the policy. Such consequences might include disciplinary action, up to and including termination. They might also include reassignment of positions, in the event the policy restricts or prohibits relationships within a particular reporting line, department, or work group. When it comes to personal relationships, “it takes two to tango.” Thus, the policy should include at least a general warning that all employees involved in any prohibited or restricted relationship may be subject to discipline, position reassignment, or other established consequences. Because there so rarely is a “one-size-fits-all” calculation as to which consequence might be appropriate under the circumstances, the policy can state that decisions regarding the consequences applicable to each involved employee will be made on a case-by-case basis.
- Remind employees about other applicable conduct-related employment policies as well as any employee assistance program (EAP). Unfortunately, not all personal relationships in the workplace are wanted by all of the involved parties. Even when a personal relationship is consensual at first, it can later develop into a situation in which one of the involved employees views the other’s actions as unwanted, inappropriate, or harassing.
As such, employers should dedicate a section of the personal relationship policy to reminding employees about the company’s rules of conduct, rules of ethics, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, complaint reporting policies and procedures, anti-retaliation policies, and other related employment policies and procedures. Employers also should dedicate a section of the personal relationship policy to remind employees about any EAP that might be available and make a statement expressly encouraging employees to contact the EAP in the event they believe their physical or emotional well-being is at risk or have any other concerns about their personal relationships. Further to this end, any acknowledgement form used by the employer in connection with the personal relationship policy provides a prime opportunity for the employees to acknowledge and confirm their review and understanding of the above policies.
No employer wants to face the message delivered in the well-known Nazareth song, “Love Hurts.” Managing romantic and personal relationships among employees can present a variety of challenges to unprepared employers, not only in terms of legal liability but also general employee relations practices. Investing in the preparation and implementation of a thoughtful and thorough personal relationship policy, coupled with appropriate acknowledgment forms signed by employees, can help considerably to limit such potential risks.