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Guidelines for Relationship Policies

June 4, 1999
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Related Topics: Staffing and the Law, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
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A Recommended Framework

  • Employers should have written policies on dating and family relationships in the workplace to promote uniform treatment of all employees and reduce the likelihood of claims of discrimination or favoritism. Supervisors should hold question-and-answer sessions with employees upon initiation of the policies to avoid any misunderstandings. All new employees should receive the policy upon being hired and should be given the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Employers generally cannot discriminate based on marital status, so workplace rules should apply to close relationships between co-workers, whether married or not.
  • Employers should require employees who are in a close personal relationship to report the relationship if the employees work together as part of their jobs. Supervisors should treat this information as confidential.
  • Employers should generally prohibit employees in a close personal relationship from working in supervisor/subordinate rules. If a transfer or change in responsibility isn’t feasible, other supervisors should handle or participate in performance reviews of the subordinate employee. It should be clearly stated that the subordinate employee has the option of going to the most senior supervisor to discuss any workplace issue.
  • Employers may require that employees in a close personal relationship refrain from public displays of affection or excessive conversation.
  • Workplace relationship rules should apply to all employees, even senior executives.

Guidelines and policies regarding dating and close relationships in the workplace need legal review to ensure compliance with federal, state and local laws.

Source: Michael D. Karpeles, partner with the Chicago law firm of Goldberg, Kohn, Bell, Black, Rosenbloom & Moritz, Ltd.

A Sample Policy

Policies concerning workplace relationships aren’t only good for employees, they’re good for the bottom line. They decrease the chance for costly lawsuits and help create a more productive work environment.

The following policy combines good judgment with practical policies:

"Consensual personal relationships between individuals in the Firm are not prohibited by the policy. Those who engage in such relationships, however, should be aware that concerns may later arise regarding the actual freedom of choice of one of the parties, particularly when a superior/subordinate relationship exists between them. In these cases, the Firm requires the senior-ranking person in the relationship to disclose the relationships to the Co-Chairs of the Diversity Committee, so that appropriate staffing and/or supervisory decisions can be made. The Firm also requires that employees involved in a consensual personal relationship notify the Co-Chairs if the relationship terminates or is not longer consensual.
"The Co-Chairs shall have discretion to recommend staffing changes to the Staffing Committee. Efforts will be made to separate the parties’ business interactions to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest. A lateral move will be attempted whenever possible; the couple’s recommendation will be considered as to which person will be reassigned to a new team or position. Any such move will be kept as discrete as possible, and will not be considered punitive in any way. In the event that a lateral move isn’t possible and an actual conflict of interest exists, the Firm reserves the right to ask one of the individuals to leave.

"Failure to disclose the existence and/or the termination of a consensual relationship which causes a real or perceived conflict of interest will be considered a violation of this Policy, subject to disciplinary measure."

Ask Yourself: When Does Office Romance Require Management Intervention?

Three issues are relevant to HR taking action regarding office romances. But remember, one can’t simply presume there will be a problem. Focus on the behavior, not the motivation behind it. The questions below were posed in an article titled "Work and Love Can Become a Volatile Mixture" by Leilani Allen. It appeared in the February 3, 1997 issue of Computerworld.

  • Are there displays of affection or emotional outbursts that are inappropriate in a business environment? If so, there should be immediate intervention.
  • Does the relationship affect the group’s performance, creating unnecessary friction, errors or blame-laying? The [manager] should focus on solving the problem, not on exploring the presumed source of the problem. [HR] shouldn’t even ask whether a relationship exists because that’s a violation of privacy.

Does the individual’s performance review appear to reflect a bias? Again, the bias can be positive or negative and still be against established policy.

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