Workplace romantic relationships are on the rise. In a 2022 survey of 550 U.S. workers by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 33% reported that they had been or were currently romantically involved with a coworker. This is compared to 27% of respondents of a survey conducted before the pandemic. The 2022 survey also found that 84% of respondents would respect their colleagues being in a workplace romance. While workplace romances are common and are generally socially acceptable, they pose certain challenges to workplace policymakers and human resource professionals. In the following, we will discuss best practices for addressing romantic relationships in the workplace, as defined in the SHRM article, “Workplace Romance Is On the Rise,” by Susan Milligan.
There are a number of factors that make workplace relationships difficult to manage. Milligan explains, “HR specialists say navigating workplace romance is among their toughest assignments. That’s because the issue involves weighing fairness against people’s right to privacy and the possibility of legal liability for the company if things go awry.” On top of this, romantic relationships can be difficult to define. Let’s say that a company has a policy that romantic relationships between coworkers must be documented. At what point does a romantic relationship begin? Before or after the first date? Once the couple becomes exclusive? What if each involved individual disagrees about the nature of their relationship?
To further complicate the matter, there are many situations in which a couple may not feel comfortable disclosing their relationship. For example, LGBTQ individuals may fear judgement or discrimination because of their relationships. Others may simple be concerned that disclosing a workplace relationship would change the way they are treated at work. As one might imagine, these concerns are quite common. In the aforementioned SHRM survey, 77% of individuals who reported having been involved in a workplace romance indicated that they did not disclose their relationship to their employer. How should policymakers and HR professionals build trust and honor employee privacy, all while looking out for the company’s best interests?
While it is important to have policies regarding workplace romance, the article emphasizes that prohibiting all workplace romances is unrealistic and likely to backfire. If policies are too strict, couples will be more likely to keep their relationship a secret. On the other hand, open communication and disclosure of consensual workplace relationships can protect all parties from allegations of harassment or conflicts of interest. With this said, the article provides the following tips for addressing workplace relationships:
• Create a formal policy for workplace romantic relationships and ensure that it is clearly communicated to employees.
• Recognize that policies must reflect the workplace culture. It obviously would not make sense to ban romantic relationships among all coworkers in a small company managed by a married couple.
• Require disclosure of romantic relationships to HR and do not react punitively unless the relationship goes against formal policy. Vilifying all workplace romance will lead to more secrecy.
• Document formal acknowledgment of relationships and/or evidence of a relationship from company communications. This evidence can help settle any conflicts that may arise.
• Ensure that members of a couple do not have a direct impact on each other’s work. Relationships between a supervisor and direct report should not be permitted in the vast majority of circumstances. This is also true for relationships between executives and any subordinates.
• Prohibit obvious public displays of affection in the workplace. This is unprofessional and can cause coworkers to feel uncomfortable.
• Handle sensitive information with discretion. Sharing information about a workplace romantic relationship should be done on a need-to-know basis or with the permission of those involved. Once again, building trust is important.
In summary, workplace romantic relationships are common and often harmless. That said, they can lead to conflicts of interests, harassment, and/or uncomfortable situations when things do not go as planned. Encouraging open communication along with implementing formal policy can protect your company from adverse consequences.