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Office Romance Policies Can Reduce Risk

Experts say companies should define their policies around co-workers dating, particularly when it comes to managers dating subordinates.

August 21, 2012

The workplace is a great place to find true love. According to CareerBuilder's 2012 annual office romance survey, 38 percent of respondents have dated a co-worker at least once in their career, and one-third of them ended up married.

"That's a pretty good endorsement for office relationships," says Ryan Hunt, senior career adviser for CareerBuilder in Chicago. But it also means that two-thirds of those couples broke up, which can create difficult problems for employers.

While most companies don't go so far as forbidding any interoffice dating, they should create policies around exactly what is allowed—or risk being surprised by what workers think is acceptable, says James Hawkins head of marketing for Talk Solar Panels, a United Kingdom-based home improvement lead-generation company.

He learned that lesson from experience.

TalkSolar has a mostly 20-something staff who work day and evening shifts taking calls from people looking for home improvement price comparisons. "In the beginning, we were pretty casual and had few rules about what employees did," he says.

That changed two years ago, when one of the company's managers was running the night shift training a new employee how to manage the phones. In that casual workplace atmosphere an attraction blossomed, and they acted on it—right there on the desk in the call center.

One of the two parties gossiped about the encounter the next day, and word quickly spread around the office. Soon the head of the company was forced to deal with the situation.

Both employees were reprimanded and left the company shortly thereafter, and the executive team immediately put in place a zero tolerance no-dating policy for all co-workers.

"We chose the strictest possible policy because of the nature of the work," Hawkins says. Employees are often left working alone in the evening without supervision, and the leadership simply did not want to have to deal with that situation again. "Not even G-rated behavior is acceptable, and we've made it a fireable offense."

While the strictness of TalkSolar's policy may sound extreme, experts say companies should define their policies around co-workers dating, particularly when it comes to managers dating subordinates

According to CareerBuilder's survey, 28 percent of people who've dated co-workers say they had a relationship with someone above them in the company hierarchy, including their boss.

"That's where the legal risk to the company comes in," says Ed Harold, a partner at Fisher & Phillips, a national labor law firm based in New Orleans.

When managers date subordinates, other employees can argue favoritism. And if the couple breaks up, the subordinate may claim that he or she was coerced in the relationship in the first place, or may allege harassment if that person gets fired or passed over for a promotion. "A lot of problems can arise in these situations," Harold says.

That's exactly what Damien Hutchins was afraid of when he started dating Emily, a junior member of his sales team at MyWedding, a wedding planning resource website. Though the business had no formal dating policy, the two kept their relationship under wraps for a year as Hutchins moved up the corporate ladder. The company hired Emily on his recommendation—before they started dating—and within months, she was his direct report."

"It became very complicated," he says of the experience. When he was put in charge of her sales group after the company was acquired by a larger firm, he found himself treating her worse than the others on the team in an effort not to show favoritism.

"It was terrible," Hutchins says. "I was afraid that if the other people on her team found out she was dating me, they would lose respect for her."

And outside of work things were equally frustrating. She would complain to him about problems in the office that he could fix—but wouldn't. "It just didn't feel right," he says.

Eventually the pressure got to him and he quit. During his exit interview, Hutchins' boss admitted to knowing about the relationship, and said he was offended they hadn't been honest.

Emily stayed with the company, and the two are still together, but Hutchins regrets the secrecy and stress that it caused. In retrospect, he wishes he had just moved Emily to a different division so he wasn't her superior, which he thinks would have relieved a lot of the pressure. He admits, though, that leaving the company has been helpful to the relationship.

"Now, when she complains about work, I just tell her I'm sorry, and I feel no obligation to try and help," he laughs.

Hutchins' story underscores the complexity of co-worker dating policies, Harold says. "It's not like showing up late to work," he adds. "You can't ask people to change their relationship."

Instead, companies should have a set of expectations in place before such issues arise, and they should build their policies around common sense and enforceability.

"The first question you have to ask yourself is: Are you ready to fire someone for violating your policy?" If the answer is yes, you need to clearly define when and where that would happen.

Companies should consider banning relationships within a specific chain of command or department. That includes team members dating each other, and subordinates dating their boss or their boss's boss, Harold says. "For many companies, that's enough."

He notes that a good sexual-harassment policy coupled with clearly defined workplace performance expectations will cover most other co-worker dating issues. If a couple breaks up, for example, and one party reports to HR that the other is harassing them, that's covered under sexual-harassment rules.

Some might argue that management should stay out of affairs of the heart. For companies that don't want to ban dating, but do want to reduce their risk of harassment or unfair treatment lawsuits, Fisher & Phillips offers clients a "love contract," in which dating employees sign a statement saying the relationship is consensual. "That way, if they break up, they can't claim coercion," Harold says. "It adds a measure of protection against that risk."

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

Workforce Management, October 2012, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!