Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, which makes it an ideal time to review your procedures for handling workplace romance – before relationship drama causes office distractions. Case in point:
The alleged relationship between GMA3 co-anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach provides an example of just how distracting a workplace romance can be.
As you’ve probably heard, Holmes and Robach were taken off the air after photos of the duo were published and sparked widespread media attention.
During the pair’s hiatus, ABC investigated whether they violated workplace policies, including the company’s morality clause. ABC determined the relationship didn’t violate company policy, but it did create an internal and external “distraction.” Ultimately, the company parted ways with Holmes and Robach.
Granted, a workplace romance at your company probably isn’t going to garner this level of attention.
Even so, the situation reminds HR to consider: What’s the best way to respond when love is in the (office) air?
First things first: Workplace romance happens. In December 2022, a LiveCareer poll of 1,100 employees revealed that:
- 75% of respondents have had a workplace romance
- 70% said they have flirted with a co-worker
- 59% said they’d had sex with a work colleague, and
- 67% said they knew someone who had cheated on a partner with a fellow employee.
So flat-out banning workplace romance probably isn’t the most feasible solution. You don’t want to lose valuable employees over outdated policies.
And as an FYI, California employers can’t ban workplace romances. Under state law, an employee’s personal life outside of work is protected, and employers aren’t permitted to make disciplinary decisions based on after-hours conduct – including romantic relationships with co-workers.
Pitfalls of workplace romance
But romantic relationships in the workplace can cause issues, like:
- perceived favoritism by other employees
- diminished credibility of the dating employees
- gossip in the rumor mill, which often negatively affects women more than men
- colleagues asking inappropriate questions and/or making inappropriate comments, and
- claims of sexual harassment/discrimination if things end badly.
To preempt such problems, employment law attorneys Meredith Campbell (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Joy Einstein (email@example.com) of the Shulman Rogers firm recommend the following strategy to handle workplace romance:
- Recognize that romance in the workplace does happen. Work is where many people spend most of their waking hours, and as the old saying goes, sometimes you love the one you’re with. That said, it is important to implement rules prohibiting romantic relationships in certain situations, for example, between a boss and a subordinate.
- If there is no power dynamic between the individuals in the relationship, your primary concern is to ensure that the relationship is and remains consensual.
- You might want to consider a signed document, often referred to as a relationship contract, a “Cupid Contract” or a love contract, that confirms both parties consent to the relationship and acknowledges that either can leave the relationship with no adverse impact at work.
What’s in a relationship contract?
Campbell and Einstein say that a well-crafted relationship contract:
- Prohibits retaliation of any kind.
- Includes a reminder that if either party feels like an action violates the company’s anti-harassment or anti-discrimination policy, then they should let HR know so the company can investigate and take appropriate action.
- Stipulates that if the relationship becomes a distraction for co-workers or if things change so that both employees cannot remain in their current role, the company reserves the right to transfer or terminate employment for either or both employees.
HR’s crucial questions — answered
If you decide to implement a romance-disclosure policy, one of the first questions you will face is: At what point does the relationship have to be disclosed?
This is a tough one, Campbell and Einstein acknowledged. They suggest writing the policy to encourage early disclosure to HR. You don’t need to hear about every flirtation, but if co-workers are on a second date… it’s probably time to disclose.
Our HR expert contributor Jackie Plunkett agrees with this assessment, saying that office rumors about romance often spur the introduction of a relationship contract when employees don’t come to HR.
The question then becomes: How do you get employees to feel comfortable disclosing a budding relationship?
Campbell and Einstein say it’s crucial for HR to build an environment of trust because sometimes these secrets are especially difficult to share. (For example, if someone is engaged in extra-marital romance or is in an LGBTQ+ relationship and is not yet out at work).
Plunkett points out that while some employees may be hesitant to sign a contract, it offers protection to the employee and the company, ensuring conduct expectations have been addressed.
And of course, all parties involved wonder: What if the relationship doesn’t work out?
Depending on the circumstances, you might want to meet with both employees, asking them to decide who needs to transfer to a new job (or maybe out of the company), Campbell and Einstein said. And if circumstances permit, it’s always better to have the employee volunteer for the adverse action.
But not all relationships end badly.
If your policy and signed agreement cover the expected conduct post-breakup, and things never went too emotionally deep, Plunkett pointed out, it is possible that both parties can co-exist professionally as well once the relationship ends. The bottom line is the contract still offers protection for all.
True story: An employee’s take on a relationship contract
A few years ago, a friend of mine had just been promoted to an entry-level management position. In that role, part of his job duties involved going to job fairs and validating new candidates. At a job fair, he was impressed by a candidate and recommended her for an interview. Ultimately, the woman was hired for a position in another department.
Over the next six to nine months, my friend chatted with the woman at work. And then they started talking outside of work. As things progressed, they kept their relationship on the down-low for a while. When the holidays rolled around, they knew that they were going to be making family introductions and posting photos on social media. And becoming “Instagram official” meant the news about their relationship was going to get out.
My friend and his then-girlfriend (spoiler: now wife!) reached out to HR and explained their dating situation. In response, the company had them sign a contract stating that their relationship was consensual and that they’d behave professionally at work. It also stipulated that the two couldn’t work together or for each other on the same team.
Pros and cons of a contract, from an employee’s perspective
I asked my friend if he had any reservations about signing, and his answer was pretty interesting. He said no, he didn’t have any reservations. Mostly, he felt relieved that the company took the news so well. He was able to keep his job and his salary, which made him really happy.
He also felt like the contract provided a layer of protection at the office. Because the contract stipulated that he couldn’t work with his girlfriend, he didn’t have to deal with perceived favoritism by other employees. They weren’t working on the same team, so it never became an issue.
He quickly realized the contract also had another benefit: It provided a layer of protection for the relationship. The prohibition against working together meant that they weren’t making day-to-day decisions about each other’s jobs, which he said could’ve caused a strain on things.
Next, I asked my friend what, if anything, in the contract would’ve been a dealbreaker for him. After thinking about it for a minute, he said anything that might’ve seemed to limit either of their career paths or restrict their ability to rise through the ranks of the company. He also said he wouldn’t have liked a clause that limited their ability to attend company events together, such as inter-office parties and happy hours.
As a final thought, he added that the relationship strengthened their ties to the company. They had a shared focus and interest that grew at work – and several years later, they got married.
The lesson for HR: It’s unrealistic — and potentially counterproductive — to ban romantic relationships at work. When used properly, relationship contracts can help companies — and dating employees — navigate the associated risks and avoid potential issues.