Romance in the Workplace

Coworkers in an office romance flirtatiously touching feet.This is a particularly good time of year for employers to ask themselves, “Should my company have a policy prohibiting office romances?”

Valentine’s Day in the workplace is usually a happy and fairly uneventful holiday.  The greatest excitement and interruption  generally occurs when flowers and gifts are delivered.  All in all, in most of our workplaces, Valentine’s Day comes and goes without causing much disruption.

However, when cupid invades the workplace in the guise of office romance, it can disrupt the entire operation!

An object lesson in the dangers of employee romances:

In 2007, the whole country was riveted by the spectacle of an astronaut’s office romance gone terribly awry.  The astronaut, Lisa Nowak, became involved with a fellow space-farer.  When their relationship fizzled and he began seeing someone else, Nowak’s behavior became bizarre by anyone’s standards.

She packed her car with a variety of sinister objects, including a knife, mallet, pepper spray, rubber tubing, garbage bags, and a loaded BB pistol.  She then donned a black wig and a diaper, and frantically drove 900 miles to “confront” her ex-boyfriend’s new squeeze.  She was arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping, securing herself a permanent spot in the nation’s memory.

Needless to say, Lisa Nowak’s actions were quite an embarrassment for NASA.  Would NASA have benefited from having a policy restricting employee romances?  Perhaps!  (Rather than create a fraternization policy, NASA ultimately decided to beef up their screening policies instead, to better weed out candidates with psychological issues.)

Why most companies don’t have office romance policies:

Policies on employee fraternization were very popular in the 50s and 60s, but have been eliminated over the years.  The vast majority of companies no longer have them.  There are many reasons for this:

  • They’re unpopular. These policies are understandably unpopular with employees.  Most of us recognize that we spend a lot of our time at work, which means that if we are single, our workplace becomes one of the places where we are likely to find a potential mate.
  • They’re intrusive. These policies can feel like an invasion of employee privacy.  If a policy is implemented, it has to be done in such a way that it doesn’t feel intrusive.
  • They can be legally questionable. Some people have made a claim that employee fraternization policies amount to discrimination based on marital status, which is prohibited in Washington State.

Why a sexual harassment policy is more important than an employee fraternization policy:

Preventing claims of sexual harassment is a real concern to managers and human resource professionals.  In lieu of implementing a fraternization policy, it is immensely important that every company have a solid sexual harassment policy in place.

If someone in a supervisory or management role approaches someone else in the workplace in a romantic way, and it is construed that subordinate employee’s job, promotion, etc., are contingent on complying, it is vital that the employee know the steps he or she can take to report this action to get immediate resolution.

Your company’s sexual harassment policy should:

  • Address how claims of sexual harassment will be handled, and what the consequences of such behavior will be
  • Be posted in the workplace and given to every employee
  • Be included in the employee handbook

How to address employee romances without a fraternization policy:

Office romances can create distractions and disruptions in the workplace.  In lieu of a policy preventing them, it is important that business owners, managers and supervisors understand how to handle a romance that is creating a problem.

Don’t let an office romance impact employee morale: The morale of coworkers can be affected when the romantic pair’s productivity is impacted by frequent personal exchanges, offensive behavior, demonstrative affection, verbal sparring, etc.  Their supervisors should not hesitate to remind them to conduct themselves in a productive and professional manner.

Take special care when handling romances between supervisors and subordinates: If the romance is mutual between a supervisor and a subordinate, it needs to be dealt with immediately.  The issue of a sexual harassment complaint can be put to bed (no pun intended) by having them both sign an agreement stating that the relationship is consensual (this is referred to as a “love contract” or “consensual relationship agreement”.)  However, it still does not remove the stigma of favoritism from the eyes of other employees.

Depending on the size of your company, you can transfer one of the employees to another department.  If that’s not possible, you may have to ask for one of the employees to volunteer to resign.  Be careful to not automatically select the subordinate, as this may be a policy that tends to discriminate against one gender.

Good behavior policies mitigate the fallout from a bad breakup:

What happens when the office romance ends?  Our astronaut went off the deep end when she thought her romance was over, and her subsequent actions impacted her coworkers, her workplace, and indeed, everyone involved with her employer.

While we, as employers, cannot ensure that office romances won’t end badly, the most we can do is to have behavior policies in place to govern employees on the job.  We need to provide our employees with clear and concise expectations in advance.

Simple policies about appropriate workplace behavior may be sufficient to cover situations surrounding workplace dating.  A strong and clear sexual harassment policy is absolutely essential to protect all companies.  As with all human resource policies, you must consistently enforce whatever policy you adopt.

The wrap-up:

While the scandalmonger in all of us found much to be amused and fascinated by in the unfortunate case of Lisa Nowak, it’s a story that any business manager would never, ever want to see plastered across the news about one of their own employees.

One thing we can be grateful for is that the Adventures of the Naughty NASA Astronaut provide us with a very vivid object lesson on why it’s important to plan in advance what we will do should two of our employees become romantically involved!

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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