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Q&A: Should we ban romantic relationships in the workplace?

Question:

Should we ban romantic relationships in the workplace?

Answer from Eric, SPHR, SHRM-SCP:

Depending on the nature of the relationship, how you handle workplace romances is mostly up to your organization’s preference or policy.

If the employees do not report to one another and are engaged in a mutually consenting relationship, no action may be needed. Some organizations prefer to ban office dating, but I find this difficult or impossible to enforce and often not worth the time and effort. It can also create a Big Brother-like feeling, reducing trust between management and employees, and often forcing relationships to be kept secret. Some employers choose to use a “Consensual Relationship Agreement” when they know employees are dating, which establishes that both parties are part of the relationship by choice, and lays out some ground rules for how to behave.

Instead of either of these, I recommend communicating to the employees your relevant workplace policies (e.g. harassment) and your expectations regarding behavior in the workplace, and leaving it at that. In most cases, the less time management spends delving into employees’ personal lives, the better.

That said, I do recommend prohibiting managers from dating subordinate employees as a standard policy, even if layers of management separate them. There could be issues with preferential treatment and complaints of harassment if the relationship ends. These situations could expose your organization to increased risk.

If you decide to prohibit all employee dating, be careful when wording your policy. Outright “non-fraternization” policies have the potential to violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. Courts have found that use of the word “fraternize” without additional explanation could potentially discourage employees from exercising their rights, so I recommend language that specifically refers to “employee dating.”

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Eric has extensive experience in HR, management, and training. He has held several senior HR positions, including as the HR & Operations Manager for an award-winning interactive marketing agency and as HR Director for a national law firm. Eric graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Economics from the University of Oregon with a minor in Business Administration.

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