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February 8, 2012

Is That Cupid Hiding Behind That Cubicle? Dealing with Workplace Romances

Filed under: General HR Buzz7:00 am

Valentine’s Day can make an HR person’s heart flutter with thoughts of candy, Cupid, and cookies.  Or, maybe that’s a misdiagnosis. Perhaps it’s not a fluttering heart but a pounding one, as fears of harassment claims; inappropriate workplace behavior and other similar unpleasantries can result from workplace romances.  How should you deal with love at work?

Increasingly, employees are finding dates and sometimes spouses at work.  But whether workplace romances are consensual or not, the potential problems can be significant.

Romance at work can:

  • Be distracting to the employees involved and those around them
  • Decrease productivity
  • Impact office morale
  • Create communication problems
  • Create bad or hurt feelings
  • Be subject to ups and downs and sometimes really bad endings
  • Give rise to charges of harassment
  • Create a hostile environment for others
  • Be disruptive, waste time and resources, and generally give HR people and managers bad headaches

How do you balance the needs of the company to avoid discrimination charges and have a productive and professional workplace with an employee’s right to privacy and to create social relationships?

Some Suggestions: An Ounce of Prevention…

  • Get it in writing.
    Obviously a solid harassment policy is critical. But it may also be wise to include a policy or additional language regarding appropriate and inappropriate behavior involving personal relationships. What may be obvious to you may be oblivious to others. ( e.g., No open affection at work, no sexy clothing, emails, or X-rated cards.) Remind employees that expected business behavior applies to business social relationships. Use specific examples of what’s expected.) Make clear that your policies apply to conduct at work and during company-sponsored activities.
  • Distribute the policy and train (regularly)
    Some states require harassment training. Everybody should provide it, whether required or not. Training on the pitfalls of office romance are a natural part of this discussion.
  • Leave the non fraternization policies to others (like the military and competing frat houses)
    While some organizations would prefer to prohibit all workplace romances some state laws and certain privacy rights may not allow that approach. Employers need legitimate business reasons for prohibiting relationships, such as concerns about conflicts of interest or preventing harassment.
  • Your boss should not be your Valentine
    Organizations do have significant and legitimate interests to strongly discourage, or where allowed, prohibit relationships between supervisors and subordinates. These can lead to harassment claims from a subordinate who later claims s/he was pressured into the relationship and can create resentment in others.
  • Be proactive
    Whether you are faced with a potential harassment claim or just inappropriate behavior address the issue early. But as a good HR person or manager who already knows that. I won’t even mention the admonition to document, document, or document.
  • Consult your attorney
    While no one wants to pay legal fees, it’s cheaper to get advice before a problem can ruin your day, Valentine’s or otherwise.

Love is All Around 
Regardless of your organization’s approach to the “workplace romance problem” the issue will never go away. But a little thought, planning, and training can go a long way to address the potential negative effects or even legal consequences of Cupid in your office.

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