Employers have a responsibility to create and maintain a non-discriminatory and non-harassing workplace where employees can perform the duties of their jobs as effectively and safely as possible. As most of us have experienced, co-workers spend a lot of time together, working and interacting with each other and, not infrequently, developing romantic relationships with one another. In fact, some statistics show that one quarter of employees admit to having a consensual romantic relationship with a co-worker at least once in their work life and 15 percent of employees go on to marry their co-worker.
Close, positive relationships in the workplace can create many positive outcomes such as more loyalty to the company and more reliability from employees. However, close, romantic relationships can also create some undesirable complications too.
When co-workers become close, whether as good friends or lovers, they may waste work time talking about personal matters and may exclude and/or gossip about other co-workers. Also, it is not uncommon for one romantic co-worker to cover for the other’s inadequacies, such as mistakes, tardiness, lack of ability, or dishonesty. When this happens, the performance issues of a romantic co-worker can be difficult for supervisors to address properly.
Romantic relationships can create other challenging situations, such as inappropriate physical conduct at work or inappropriate public displays of affection (“PDA”) which can make others around the couple uncomfortable. Also, if the couple gets into an argument or the relationship turns sour, harmful thoughts, feelings, and actions can spill over into the workplace, impacting others, negatively affecting the company culture and ultimately adversely affecting overall productivity.
Moreover, if the romantically-involved employees are in a supervisor/subordinate relationship, even if not directly, there could be the appearance of or actual existence of preferential treatment. This not only creates poor morale issues but can create legal exposure if others outside the couple believe their schedules, wages, career progression, etc. are being negatively affected by the office romance of a supervisor and subordinate.
Of course, it is impossible to regulate all human interactions. That said, employers can take some actions to lay the groundwork to establish some structure before the situation arises.
A fraternization or consensual relationship policy can be implemented which outlines the expectations, responsibilities, and repercussions should co-workers enter a romantic relationship. This policy should include explicit language that employees are not allowed to let their relationship impact workplace culture, productivity, or morale and that, if it does, one of the involved employees may be transferred, reassigned, or even terminated to eliminate the conflict. Transfers, reassignments, or terminations may happen immediately if there is a supervisor/subordinate relationship to reduce legal exposure. The policy should also clearly state that a manager is always held to a higher standard so a violation by management will be treated more harshly than one by peer co-workers or a subordinate.
Along with this policy, companies should consider drafting a consensual relationship agreement for co-workers to sign when they enter a relationship. This agreement should detail what is and is not acceptable behavior as well as the repercussions for failure to meet the expectation for appropriate behavior. It should also explicitly state that the employees are both entering into the relationship willingly and there is no violation of the company’s harassment/sexual harassment policy. It should be signed and dated by both employees and kept in their personnel files in case any disciplinary or personnel action needs to be taken.
Another related area of potential complication is with the employment of relatives or nepotism. Since employee referrals are a great source for new hires and are generally encouraged, companies are often faced with the prospect of hiring the family and friends of current employees. This is not a bad thing, but it can lead to complications.
The same principles of avoiding conflicts of interest and supervisor/subordinate relationships between relatives (through marriage or blood) should apply. While relatives cannot always “end” their relationship, preferential treatment as well as personal problems can make their way into the work place and impact others.
Companies can implement an employment of relatives or nepotism policy to outline the expectations of employees who work with parents, children, siblings, etc. Many companies rely on family participation so this policy should clearly outline expectations and responsibilities for peer-to-peer as well as supervisor/subordinate relationships. Again, managing productivity and outlining potential disciplinary actions are crucial for the company to safely take action if needed.
Every company should strive to have a positive, productive work environment with cohesive relationships between and among co-workers. The positive impacts of strong workplace relationships are innumerable. However, companies need also to be prepared for the possible negative impacts of those relationships should they evolve into something more and, more importantly, if they dissolve altogether. Being prepared before workplace romance or nepotism at work occurs, and having a solid approach for handling such situations, is certainly an HR Good Housekeeping idea.
By Paige McAllister, HR Compliance – Affinity HR Group, Inc.
Paige McAllister is a contributor for Affinity HR Group, Inc., NAWLA’s affiliated human resources partner. Affinity HR Group specializes in providing human resources assistance to associations such as NAWLA and their member companies. To learn more, visit www.affinityHRgroup.com.