Love knows no boundaries, and that can be bad for business because office romances happen.
They best be managed properly.
As more and more remote workers return to the office, companies will need to deal with relationships that began in private during the pandemic and the new ones that will inevitably bloom. After all, we can’t ask employees to bring their best selves to work and not expect some of them to be attracted to those very qualities in each other.
What to do when office romances happen
That makes it the perfect time to establish guidelines that will keep everything on the up and up and everyone comfortable with co-workers dating — as well as when/if things don’t work out. Maybe create an employee prenup of sorts: what happens before, is allowed during, and comes after the relationship. Companies have got to decide what’s in bounds and what’s out and make that company-wide policy.
This is especially important given the flattening of corporate hierarchies. These days there are fewer bosses and more peers, less focus on titles and more blurring of roles. Not to mention it’s the first time we have five generations working alongside each other, from the Early Boomers to Gen Z, each with its own distinct dating styles and sense of what’s acceptable in the workplace and what’s not.
Companies need to demand transparency from employees and demonstrate flexibility regarding workplace romances. (This transparency shouldn’t come at the expense of keeping the reporting private.) Right now, there’s too little of both. Most companies seem to take a look-the-other-way approach. At the same time, in a 2022 study on workplace romances, 77% of respondents said they did not tell their employer they were dating another employee.
To put it bluntly, this is a lawsuit waiting to happen. In The Shift Work Shop’s 2022 study on the state of workplace sexual harassment, 77% of respondents said they have had a romantic or sexual relationship with a co-worker while 53% said they had faced sexual harassment in the last 12 months. Those two statistics might be unrelated, but more than likely there’s some overlap. So even if 75% of employees say they don’t consider office romances a big deal, employers should.
For instance, 33% of respondents in that same study said they have had or are having a romantic relationship – 6% higher than before COVID-19 sent everyone home. Of those relationships, 65% were between peers, while 12% dated their subordinates and 19% dated their superiors.
That’s why workplaces need some Office Relationship Rules. Here’s what I suggest:
Rule No. 1: Build a policy
Establish a policy regarding in-house relationships. Explain the policy to new employees during the onboarding process. Make sure everyone already on board knows about the policy. Then stick to it. No exceptions, not even for the CEO, especially not for the CEO. (See Jeff Zucker’s recent resignation from WarnerMedia as president of CNN for failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a colleague when it began.)
Rule No. 2: Limit hierarchy
No relationships with direct subordinates or superiors. If someone is in another’s chain of command, that relationship can’t exist. No exceptions here, either.
This rule might mean breaking up a team, rather than the relationship. Employees might need to be moved laterally; bosses might need to take on other responsibilities.
To be clear, the employee with less power should not always be the one transferred. Done well, however, no one’s career needs to suffer. In the best of all worlds, the company can even benefit from two employees who are now even happier at work.
The more important goal, though, is to avoid facing down a lawsuit for sexual harassment or discrimination, or an office full of employees suspicious about why someone did or did not get that sought-after promotion or is getting the best assignments.
Rule No. 3: Encourage transparency
Encourage employees to kiss and tell. Even better, ask them to tell before they kiss.
That’s right, colleagues who are starting romantic or sexual relationships should be required to share that information with HR. They need to know HR isn’t there to judge or pry too deeply into their personal circumstances.
Still, the company now has a stake in the relationship, and a responsibility to ensure it doesn’t interfere with business in any way. So, employees who don’t tell need to be privately held accountable if found out.
For reference, Good Morning America co-anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach, got caught cheating together on their spouses. Not a good look for the show, the network or their broadcasting futures. Both were let go. Painful in the short-term yes, but it could be the right move for HR to take.
Rule No. 4: Be reasonable
Recognize that colleagues will likely ask others out. But it must be a one and done, if the answer is no. Then it’s a hard no.
A second solicitation starts edging toward harassment. But if it’s a yes, back to No. 3: Tell!
As much as they might like to, companies can’t outlaw office romance, especially when people spend so much time there in person or on Zoom. They can only drive it underground, which isn’t good for anyone. So, the best way to handle it when love or lust is in the air is to make it a company affair.