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Trade talk: Workplace romances may hurt morale, productivity and more

Nathan Whatley is a labor and employment attorney with McAfee & Taft.
Nathan Whatley is a labor and employment attorney with McAfee & Taft.

Editor's Note: The following is a reprint of a story that was published Feb. 14, 2019.

This Valentine's Day, should employers be concerned about workplace romances?

Yes. About half of employees report they've had at least one office romance, but only 5% of employees say they'd tell their human resources department. Though it's generally acknowledged that employees in a direct line of reporting shouldn't consort or become romantically involved, such romances continue to occur, even if less frequently since the rise of the #MeToo movement.

Is it common for employers to closely police workplace relationships?

While some employers have completely banned office romance, it's more common for employers to establish policies placing certain restrictions and parameters on dating, particularly between those who have reporting relationships.

Outside of romantic relationships involving a supervisor and subordinate, are there reasons why an employer might be concerned about other workplace relationships?

Yes. A potential problem with any romantic workplace relationship is that it may not end amicably. In fact, some end quite badly and lead to significant problems such as workplace or domestic violence, stalking, employees quitting or being reassigned and more. At a minimum, these romances gone bad may create conflict and sensitivities that extend throughout the workplace and hurt morale, productivity and employee retention. Workplace relationships also have the potential to result in harassment claims should an overzealous employee attempt to start a relationship with an uninterested co-worker or when an initially consensual relationship ends. That's why it makes good business sense for business owners and human resources professionals to give careful thought to whether they wish to prohibit or discourage romantic relationships at work. Employers may prefer not to attempt to ban all romantic relationships in the workplace, but rather develop an appropriate strategy, and related policies, documentation and training, to effectively navigate the sensitive issue of workplace romances.

What are some steps employers can take to avoid problems and liabilities?

If a company doesn't have a policy addressing workplace relationships, they should strongly consider adopting a policy that addresses employee fraternization, including romantic relationships in the workplace. Employers should also address current relationships and monitor them carefully to make sure that no discriminatory treatment, improper and/or unprofessional behavior or favoritism occurs or interferes with work. Employers should also implement a conflicts of interest policy requiring employees to disclose any actual or potential conflict that could adversely affect judgment, objectivity, focus on work, or loyalty to the employer. As with any policy, such policies should be applied consistently, with training to supervisors and employees on workplace harassment and also on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate workplace conduct. Employers should also keep in mind that interactions that occur via social media can spill over into the workplace. Finally, employers should always take harassment claims seriously and address them immediately and fully.

Paula Burkes, Business writer

Paula Burkes

Paula Burkes has nearly 40 years' experience writing and editing award-winning material, including since early 2001 with the business desk of The Oklahoman. After earning a journalism degree from Oklahoma State University in 1981, Paula wrote for... Read more ›