Shades of gray: Should HR regulate romance at work?


Romance at work isn’t necessarily a bad thing, sources told HR Dive, but it can create consequences ranging from irritating to legally actionable.Employees can spend most of their waking hours at work, so, naturally, friendships can form; and out of some of those, romantic relationships will blossom. But sometimes those work romances cross a line or spawn consequences. The #MeToo era, among other things, has shown the dysfunction work relationships can create, leaving companies wondering whether and how to regulate relationships.

What to do about forbidden love?
Some employers have drawn a hard line on workplace dating — even when the relationship is consensual. Others ban only relationships between supervisors and subordinates.

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But with heightened awareness of sexual harassment and increased scrutiny about work relationships, dating among employees has dropped to a 10-year low. According to Career Builder’s 2018 Annual Valentine’s Day Survey, 36% of employees said they’d dated an employee, down from 41% the previous year.

Employers have taken a more public approach to discipline in recent years, too. Late last year, for example, McDonald’s ousted its CEO for violating the company policy. In January, Best Buy began investigating whether its CEO had an inappropriate relationship with a co-worker before taking the top position.

Work relationships present several shades of gray
But relationships at work aren’t necessarily a bad thing, Leah Sheppard, assistant professor of management at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, told HR Dive in an interview. Flirting at work can reap benefits.

Typically when sexual behavior is studied, it’s done so in the negative light of sexual harassment; but that only provides part of the whole picture, she said. Sheppard and other researchers studied flirtation and sexual behaviors, such as telling sexual jokes or talking about sexual experiences, finding some people said they enjoyed those behaviors. Furthermore, flirtation helped employees at work. “Flirtation had very clear benefits in terms of lower stress levels,” Sheppard said. “It protects participants from stressors like workplace injustice.”

Sheppard emphasized that mutually enjoyed flirtation was not to be confused with sexual harassment. “There’s nothing wrong with having zero-tolerance policies in place when it comes to things like sexual harassment,” she said. “I think part of the problem and in the current climate is that things like being asked out at work are now being collapsed into sexual harassment.”

After the #MeToo movement, some employers adopted stringent rules to eliminate even a whiff of impropriety. Netflix reportedly created guidelines that limited how long employees can maintain eye contact. NBC allegedly forbade co-workers from sharing a cab home. Employees at other companies get one chance to ask a co-worker out; even a vague rejection counts as a “no” and further requests may be considered harassment.

Still, the heart wants what it wants
Despite policies like these, workers persist in desiring to be close with co-workers. But that may not be all bad news for employers. Gallup studies found that employees with a BFF at work are more engaged and have better performance. These interpersonal connections are critical as companies struggle to retain employees and create inclusive and innovative environments.

Companies even encourage these friendships, Ogletree Deakins Shareholder Jennifer Betts told HR Dive. “When we do training in workplaces, particularly management training, we always encourage management team members to have relationships with their team that go beyond superficial. So you want them to know about people’s lives, about their families, about their interests, and form genuine bonds. It’s really important.”

But where a friendship forms, so too might a romantic relationship. While the Career Builder survey shows that dating at work has decreased, 36% of survey respondents still reported dating a co-worker.

These relationship and the behavior they entail can be enjoyable — until it turns annoying or legally actionable. “Flirtation is in the eye of the beholder,” Betts said. “What about if you’re in a cube setting, and there’s another employee who has to sit and listen to that every day, and it makes them uncomfortable?”

Dilemmas such as these have led some companies to create strict anti-dating rules. But is that ban realistic?

Should HR deny the heart?
“It’s naïve to believe that people won’t have romantic relationships with their co-workers,” Betts said. Workplace romances cause the most difficulty when there’s a reporting relationship, she added. The problem is not just for those in the relationship, but for other employees as well.

“If my boss is dating one of my peers, I certainly feel like I will not have the same opportunities as that individual, that there’s going to be favoritism, that [the] person might get confidential information about my work environment. I have a lot of concerns there of preferential treatment,” she said. For those reasons, Betts recommended a middle ground policy that prohibits dating among reporting relationships.

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Employees may feel that their dating status is their own business and should be kept private. A romantic relationship, however, especially between a supervisor or subordinate, can lead to liability for the company, Betts said. “Despite the fact that employees may be unhappy about it, it is very common for employers to have policies requiring reporting of these kinds of relationships.”

Even with specific policies prohibiting dating between supervisors and subordinates, and requiring couples to notify HR of their status, HR and managers will encounter a lot of murky situations. That’s where good judgment is critical. Ultimately, Betts said, management team members have to balance forming relationships with the people on their team and maintaining a professional distance.

Companies can help managers learn how to handle these issues during leadership or communication training. The concerns also can be discussed during anti-harassment training that includes exercising sound judgment in how managers form relationships with teams, she said. For example, if a supervisor goes to lunch with one employee but not the others, or is Facebook friends with some subordinates but not others, the wrong message is being sent — whether those relationships are platonic or romantic, Betts said.

“You have to understand your position, understand how others may perceive the relationships that you formed. Some of it may be healthy, some of it may be an actual asset to the workplace. Other times it may cross the line,” Betts said.

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