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A Poor Dating Policy Could Break a Company's Heart—and Wallet

With employees and companies becoming more accepting of office romances, companies should make sure they protect themselves from any potential sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuits.

February 7, 2013

Matthew Ciccone recalls a budding romance between two co-workers several years ago at a New York financial company despite its policy against such relationships.

A year into the relationship, says Ciccone, a Wall Street financial analyst, the company's management determined it had become an issue. Instead of letting the dispute play out, one employee quit to pursue her MBA, while the other continued working for the company. And, Ciccone says, the two employees later got married and now have children.

A CareerBuilder.com survey reveals marriage is a common outcome for dating co-workers as 31 percent of office romances end up in matrimony. Still, if nearly a third of all romances started in the workplace result in marriage, it also means two-thirds end in a breakup.

An office fling can pose a risk to an employer, as it could open the door to possible sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuits, says Steven Loewengart, a regional managing partner at Columbus, Ohio-based law firm Fisher& Phillips.

Loewengart says companies should be realistic when it comes to employees dating. Office romances are "bad for business, generally, but they are inevitable. Companies that try to ban it may not find the workforce that they want. It's a necessary evil."

A Workplace Options survey published last year reinforces Loewengart's belief that companies should be realistic when it comes to their dating policies: 84 percent of millennials said they wouldn't have a problem with dating a co-worker. What's more, the study also demonstrates how employee attitudes about dating co-workers are changing, as 36 percent of Generation X workers think dating a co-worker is acceptable.

Considering the potential risks when employees date, Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and the writer of the human resources page at About.com, says she has been lucky to have avoided any major romantic relationship issues with her employees. Her thoughts on office dating have changed, she says. She now believes it's acceptable for most employees to date. "Have a romance. If it impacts the workplace or your performance" disciplinary action will be taken, she said while speaking about her own employees.

Heathfield says a dating policy is mostly necessary because of "outliers," the minority of employees who may not be able to handle acting professionally around their significant other while at work.

Workplace romances make sense, according to Heathfield, who cites more women being in the workplace than in years past, a more "modernized" workplace with relaxed company expectations of employee fraternization and longer working hours for reasons why office romances are almost inevitable for some companies. Co-workers often live near or within driving distance of each other, and they already share a major common interest: the company they work for, she says. "Where else do people meet now? At work. It's better than meeting somebody random at a bar."

The most effective way for a company to protect itself from the risks of office romances is to have a clear sexual harassment policy, Loewengart says. Companies should also be especially careful if they allow romantic relationships between managers and subordinates, he says.

In such a situation, even if both parties are acting professionally in the workplace, a third party could argue there is favoritism. Loewengart says that perceived favoritism could potentially lead to a sexual discrimination lawsuit. If an employee of the same sex as a subordinate dating a manager thinks his or her career is being impeded by the relationship, that person could claim sexual discrimination against the employer, Loewengart says.

Heathfield argues that the best way to avoid perceived favoritism is to have a dating policy that forbids managers from dating subordinates all together because she sees "too much potential for problems" with that kind of relationship. Even if favoritism isn't taking place, other employees will still be looking for it, which can have a negative effect on morale and productivity, she says.

According to CareerBuilder's survey, 38 percent of workers have dated a co-worker at least once in their career. And in the same survey, which was published in 2012, 37 percent of respondents said they had to keep their relationships secret.

Instead of forbidding employees from dating, Loewengart recommends employers discourage, though not necessarily ban, subordinates dating superiors. If such a thing is to happen, he says, both employees should have to go through counseling sessions and sign a document that states both parties have read and agree with their company's sexual harassment policies. However, disclosure agreements like this don't eliminate the threat of a lawsuit, he says. "Formal contracts can't always shield you from a claim" because an employee can always claim they signed the document believing it was necessary in order to avoid termination.

Both experts believe that the best way for a company to protect itself is by making clear to employees its sexual harassment policies, and by establishing expectations of professionalism. If an affair begins to negatively affect an employee's productivity or workplace behavior, the company should take disciplinary action.

Heathfield says a company should keep it simple when developing its dating policy, believing a company needs to inform dating employees to "act professionally no matter what. Be private and discreet about your relationship. I'd hate to have thousands of words for outliers and subject professional people to more rules."

Max Mihelich is Workforce's editorial intern. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.