While working remotely during the beginning of the pandemic may have cooled down any burgeoning office romances, a recent study shows they’re making a comeback.
One-third of employees reported they’ve been involved with a co-worker this year, which is up from the 27% of workers who admitted to an office romance back in 2020.
It may be surprising that office romances have persisted despite the disruption of the pandemic, but according to marketing company Reboot, people simply spend so much time at work that it would be unrealistic to expect these relationships to go away.
Reboot conducted a survey that showed nearly half of all employees will date a co-worker at some point in their career.
Relationships can get messy
But just because office romances are common doesn’t mean they can’t be problematic. The majority of employers (84%) aren’t OK with their employees dating. Reboot also reported that 4% of people were fired due to their office romance, and an additional 21% quit after enduring a bad breakup with a colleague.
And if typical office romances weren’t bad enough, 22% of employees have dated their boss, and 36% of workplace relationships involved at least one married person.
Looking at these numbers, it’s clear why employers would rather avoid office romances all together. Even when there’s nothing as dramatic as affairs or power imbalances going on, favoritism or conflicts of interest can easily occur.
It’s a tricky situation for HR to navigate, but employment law attorney Ana Dowell of the firm Akerman LLP has some advice for tackling office romances.
1. Make a realistic policy
Every business has a different stance on colleague relationships, depending on their industry and size. Some employers forbid any type of office romance — others only have rules against employees dating superiors. A company might also decide to permit relationships as long as the involved employees report it to HR.
When crafting an office romance policy, it’s important to really think about which type is best for your company. Banning relationships outright isn’t going to prevent them — people will just sneak around and leave HR in the dark (Reboot found that 57% of those in office relationships kept it a secret). You won’t want to be blindsided. Permitting the relationships as long as employees disclose them can be a good way to stay on top of potential issues that may arise. It’s better to be aware of the situation so you can monitor it.
Whichever type of policy you decide to use, it’s important it’s realistic and feasible for your company.
2. Make employees aware of policy
Employees can’t follow your policy if they don’t know about it! It’s a good idea to share information about office romance policies during onboarding, in the employee handbook and/or through annual employee training.
It’s also wise to discuss office romances in tandem with harassment policies, which can help employees differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
If your company is still remote, it’s worth adding that the office romance policy applies even when not physically in the workplace, since conflicts of interest can still happen.
3. Have safe ways to report concerns
Employers need to have a procedure for what happens if someone violates the office relationship policy. Also important is a way for employees to report anything suspicious, such as managers behaving inappropriately with subordinates. Some kind of anonymous reporting method is best, as people may be hesitant to voice these concerns with their names attached.
You could also train managers on how to respond to these concerns and direct employees to them — though reporting directly to HR is always best, as they’re an unbiased party and have experience handling things like this.
4. Address issues caused by office romances
If you do find employees in violation of your office romance policy, it’s important to talk to both parties separately and document these conversations. After finding the relationship is consensual, it’s important to have the employees sign something stating so, and to encourage them to come to HR if the relationship ever becomes nonconsensual.
If the relationship is negatively impacting the business (or has the potential to), it may be necessary to transfer an employee to prevent conflicts of interest.
Because of the legal risks involved if there is an inappropriate office romance, it’s a good idea for HR to consult with legal counsel before any transfers or terminations are enacted.