Tips for Dealing With Romantic Relationships in the Workplace

How to Deal With Dating, Sex, and Romance at Work

two office co-workers passing a paper heart to one another
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What's love got to do with it? Quite a lot, actually. To answer Tina Turner's proverbial question, current research on workplace romance was reviewed. If it's just about sex, a dalliance, an extramarital affair, or a relationship to move an individual up the career ladder, co-workers and companies tend to frown on love relationships in the office.

If a couple is genuinely serious about dating and building a relationship, popular opinion is more favorable.

How Co-workers React to an Office Romance

Amy Nicole Salvaggio, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, conducted a study of nearly 200 full-time workers in a variety of workplaces. Her findings indicated that most respondents do not mind seeing a romance develop between two unmarried colleagues.

However, they do object to relationships in which one or both co-workers are married to someone else, and they also oppose romances when the relationship is between a supervisor and a direct report.

Andrea C. Poe, an HR freelance writer, also found in a Society for Human Resource Management white paper that adulterous affairs were a problem in some workplaces. From data gathered from a Vault.com survey of several thousand employers and employees, she determined that inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace is common on company time and at company locations.

Workplace Romance Policies

Considering the amount of time most people spend working, where else is a couple to meet? Traditional places like church, family events, and leisure time activities don’t present the same pool of candidates as they did in earlier times.

The workplace provides a preselected pool of people who share at least one important area of common ground. People who work together also tend to live within a reasonable dating distance, and they see each other on a daily basis. So should romance be discouraged?

In a 2017 SHRM survey, 57 percent of individuals responding said they engaged in a romantic relationship at work. In other surveys, 55 percent of the HR professionals who responded said that marriage is the most likely outcome of the office romances they experienced. Other studies have reported a higher level of productivity from dating couples at work.

And yet, an SHRM workplace romance survey found that only 42 percent of companies have developed a formal, written, workplace romance policy. The low percentage of policies and regulations that are in place are likely due to the unwillingness of employers to police workers and their relationships in the office.

According to Dana Wilkie, an online SHRM editor, periodic surveys by SHRM show that 99 percent of employers with romance policies in place indicate that love matches between supervisors and staff members are not allowed. That percentage is up significantly over the last fifteen years.

Many organizations forbid intimate relationships even outside supervisory relationships. Thirty-three percent of organizations forbid romances between employees who report to the same supervisor, and 12 percent won’t even allow employees in different departments to date.

Romances Between Clients or Customers

The SHRM research also found that some companies forbid hookups between their employees and clients or customers, and 11 percent forbid romances between their employees and employees of their competitors.

HR and Management Concerns 

Respondents to the SHRM surveys who discouraged or forbade dating in the workplace cited concerns with potential sexual harassment claims, retaliation, claims that a relationship was not consensual, civil suits and workplace disharmony if the relationship should end.

Depending on the discretion of the dating couple, gossip in the workplace can become rampant and disruptive. They also worry about losing valuable employees who might seek employment elsewhere if the relationship ends.

Tips for HR Professionals

Organizations walk a fine line between ensuring employee productivity and interfering in the private affairs of their employees. Powell, in the cited study, states, "that policymakers in most organizations believe that workplace romances cannot be legislated away and should be ignored unless they present a threat to the individual, group, or organizational effectiveness.

"Decision makers in most organizations recognize that some form of managerial intervention is required when a workplace romance presents a serious threat to the conduct of work or group morale."

As an HR professional, you also want employees to perceive your staff members as advocates for their well-being and high morale, not as the rule-making, interfering, systematizing arms of management.

With both of these concerns in mind, consider taking the following actions.

Provide Training About Work Romances

Provide training for supervisors and managers about how to discreetly address overt sexual behavior in the workplace. You will also want the supervisors comfortable coaching the dating couple if the relationship results in lowered morale and productivity for themselves or co-workers.

Additionally, Powell's study of the literature found that workplace romances are particularly "hazardous for gay and lesbian employees due to negative reactions to homosexual relationships in general." Supervisors will need to know how to address these issues should they arise. As a result, comprehensive training is recommended.

Office relationships are often the focus of intense gossip, so supervisors need to know how to keep their ears open for damaging behaviors. Supervisors should understand the appropriate disciplinary actions they should take if a romance derails and disrupts the workplace as a result. If romance becomes sexual harassment, supervisors should know what to do to take immediate action. As a result, comprehensive training should be implemented.

One SHRM study found that only 12 percent of the surveyed organizations provided training to managers and supervisors regarding how to manage workplace romances. A good first step would be to advise supervisors and managers as to how they might discreetly address overt sexual behavior in the workplace.

Broadcast Your Sexual Harassment Policy

Have a formal, written sexual harassment policy that is posted, appears in the employee handbook and is listed on all company policy documents. The sexual harassment policy should address how a sexual harassment claim will be handled.

Train all employees that the company has zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Provide information about the consequences of such behavior on their continued employment.

At the same time, employees need to understand that it is OK to ask a co-worker out on a date. Harassment occurs when the employee indicates no interest and the unwanted attention continues.

All employees need to understand where the line occurs. Most organizations ask employees to sign a document indicating they understand and will abide by the sexual harassment policy.

Develop an Appropriate Relationship Policy About Office Romance

You may want to think about your organizational culture and the work environment you want to provide for employees. Are there certain romantic situations you want to prohibit or, at least, have a policy in place to address? An example is a fraternization policy which you may want to consider.

Make sure that your employees are aware of all the rules and policies regarding workplace romances. A policy that prohibits dating, sex, and romance entirely is not recommended. Any policy that is seen as overreaching or intrusive may encourage stealth dating. 

Policies are developed to guide employees in creating a legal, ethical, harmonious workplace, not to control the bad behavior of a few. You might consider a policy that prohibits supervisors from dating any employee who reports directly to him or her. The policy may also state that you expect staff members to behave in a professional manner while dating.

Let your employees know that you expect that office romances, relationships, or affairs will be kept separate from the work environment. The organization will not tolerate sexual liaisons and sexual behavior at work. Spell out the consequences if the romance is negatively impacting the workplace.

If You’re Involved in a Workplace Relationship

If Cupid strikes and you find yourself attracted to a co-worker, these actions will minimize any possible damage to your (and their) career.

  • Know your organization's written and unwritten policies about romantic, sexual, extramarital, or dating relationships.
  • Keep the relationship private and discreet until you are ready to publicly announce that you are a couple.
  • Behave discreetly in the workplace. Keep public displays of affection off limits at work.
  • Know whether you’re required to report a dating relationship to HR. Don't blindside your HR staff. They can help you with gossip control and with understanding what is expected and appropriate in your workplace. Give them the opportunity to help. 
  • Limit the number of people at work with whom you share this confidential information.
  • If your position and responsibilities require you to work together, attend the same meetings, and so on, behave professionally at all times. You are encouraged to be yourself, maintain and speak your continuing opinions, exhibit the same skills, and conduct yourself in the same manner as you did prior to the relationship.
  • Discuss, as a couple, the potential impact of your relationship on your work. (Will one employee have to leave a department or the company? Will your organization respond favorably to your relationship?) Know your company, and make a plan before the organization requests one.
  • Be happy and build a successful relationship that adds value to the world; produces well-adjusted children, should you choose to have them; and that adds great value and happiness to your life all through the years.

Love, sex, and romance in the workplace will likely increase as time goes by. Expect these relationships; you need to prepare in advance to handle them and their potential impact on your workplace.

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Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and ​employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.