Office romances are fairly common, as the office is where we spend so much of our time. Handled well, they can lead to a lasting relationship. Handled badly, they can lead to a lawsuit for harassment.
It isn't surprising that romance springs up at the office. We spend a third or more of our lives in the office or another place of work. It is a non-threatening environment where we have an opportunity to meet potential dating partners and learn more about them. Yet romantic involvement between employees is loaded with dangers for both the employees and their employer.
Many companies tried to ban dating among their employees, though most have since abandoned that plan because of legal restrictions and a recognition of the inevitable. Instead, most now try to restrict only dating- and relationship-related activities that could be harmful to the business.
Is It Appreciated?
If you are going to allow employees to flirt, you have to first make very clear the company policy on harassment. If an employee is not interested in, or receptive to, an advance from another employee, it should end there. Flirting is a normal prelude to dating, but it's appropriate in the office only if the receiving party is comfortable with it. If you have a harassment policy, make it very clear to all employees. If you don't have one, you need to generate one right now.
Is It Appropriate?
In most cases, mutually agreeable relationships between employees pose no danger to the company. However, there are instances where they may be harmful to the company and its interests. For example, it is never a good idea for a manager to be romantically involved with a subordinate in their own department or team. Situations such as this should be clearly spelled out in the company policy as unacceptable and subject to corrective action.
Some of the downsides are preventable while others aren't. If two employees marry and have children, one employee may leave the company to raise children. There is nothing you can or should do about this except be prepared to hire a replacement.
The downside with the biggest danger to the company is when a relationship between employees breaks apart. In some cases, the employees will handle it like adults and move on with their respective lives. In other cases, the resulting unpleasantness may require transferring one or both employees to new roles. An employee may file a claim of harassment, even if your policy is very clear and is enforced. In an extreme case, emotional stress may lead an employee to lash out and commit an act of violence.
The upside to romance in the office is that you will have some happy workers. When people are happy, they tend to be more productive and have fewer health issues. When partners work for the same employer, they have someone they can talk with about their activities and problems at work who understands them.
Steps to Take
Develop a fraternization policy, publicize it, and then enforce it. The specifics of a fraternization (or non-fraternization) policy for your company will depend on your company's culture and industry, the laws of your geographical location, and good managerial decisions about what you want to accomplish.
If you encounter a problem situation, you may need to relocate one party or the other so they no longer work together. If you can't find another position within the company for either of them, let them decide who leaves. If they don't decide, you must be prepared to make the decision and document the business purpose behind it.
Once you have developed your policy, distribute it to all your employees. Give a copy to all new employees as part of their new employee orientation. Make sure everyone in the organization understands the policy—and knows the penalties for violating the policy.
A broken heart can cause severe emotional stress for some people. Be sure your employees know about your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you have one. If you don't have an EAP, look at adding one to your employee benefits package.
Finally, once you publish the policy, you must enforce it. Be careful to be even-handed in your enforcement of the policy so that you don't get accused of gender bias. Look at each situation on its own merits. Don't arbitrarily assume that the more senior individual in the relationship is more valuable to the company.
A well-written, widely publicized, strictly enforced fraternization policy won't prevent office romances from developing. It will, however, make life a lot easier and less litigious for you when you have to deal with coworkers whose relationship soured.