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Office romance is in the air

February 15, 2017

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

According to Career Builder’s annual Valentine’s Day survey, office romance is in the air in the workplace and at a 10 year high.  The 2017 survey results reveal that 41% of employees have dated a co-worker, up from 37% percent last year and the highest rate since 2007.  Close to one third (30%) of those office relationships led to marriage, which is keeping on par with last year’s findings.  

If those results aren’t enough to raise the concerns of HR professionals, then hearing that more than 1 in 5 (29%) of employees (up from 23% last year) have dated someone in a higher position than them certainly will.  Dating a co-worker in a higher position was reported as more common for women (33%) than men (25%).  The most hair curling statistic is that 15% of workers who have had an office romance indicated that they have dated someone who was their boss.  And if dating the boss wasn’t a bad enough idea, 19% of office romances involved at least one person who was married at the time.

Nearly two in five workers who have had an office romance (38%) felt they had to keep the relationship a secret at work. Though despite those efforts 65% of employees say they are confident they know the relationship status of everyone in their office.  In terms of how those relationships started, more than 1 in 10 reported their trysts began as a late night on the job (12%).  Happy hour after work and a chance meeting outside the office tied as a close second at 10%. 

About 1 in 5 employees (21%) say what someone does for a living influences whether they would date that person (18% of men and 24% of women). 7% say they currently work with someone they would like to date this year.  It should come as no surprise that not all of these relationships end in a marriage proposal or on a positive note.  5% of employees who have had an office romance say they have left a job because of an office relationship gone bad.  The national survey was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from November 16 to December 6, 2016, and included a representative sample of 3,411 full-time, private sector workers across industries and company sizes. 

So, knowing the odds of office romances at work run high, and they often bring with them potential for distractions, allegations of favoritism, or the risk of sexual harassment complaints, what should employers do?  While banning office relationships is simply not going to be practical, employers do have the right to establish boundaries as to how relationships are conducted during working hours and within the working environment. According to an article published in Law360, here are some suggested steps employers should take:

Don’t allow supervisor-subordinate relationships – Under no circumstances should a supervisor and a subordinate have a romantic relationship. It will automatically call into question the objectivity of the supervisor and raise concerns about favoritism when it comes to pay, promotions, and other conditions of employment.  If the relationship comes to an end, the subordinate may raise claims regarding discrimination or harassment, when it comes to negative employment actions.  Employers should consider including in their policies a requirement that supervisors disclose the existence any romantic relationship with a subordinate.  Where possible, one of the dating couple should be transferred to another department or facility.  The supervisory partner will be prohibited from having any involvement in any employment related decisions that would impact their partner.  If a transfer isn’t possible, the dating couple will be required to determine which partner will resign.

Have many paths for harassment complaints – While having a sexual harassment policy in place will be an absolute necessity, employers should determine whether the complaint process is reasonable, and one that makes it easy for employees to raise their concerns.  Employees should have multiple ways to report a complaint.  If there is only one reporting path, for example to the employee’s direct supervisor, and the supervisor is at the core of the complaint, employees are left without a way to raise their concern.  In addition to having multiple points of contact to raise a compliant, some companies have opted to utilize an outside third party hotline as an alternative reporting mechanism. The harassment policy should include a complaint procedure, a system for timely investigations, corrective action and an anti-retaliation statement.

Circulate policies repeatedly – Employees should be knowledgeable of both the employer’s harassment policy and any applicable Dating/Relationships in the Workplace policies.  Policies should be regularly circulated and employee behavior expectations should be made clear.

Keep supervisors sharp and enforcement consistent – Similar to employees, supervisors must be knowledgeable regarding their employer’s policies, and they should also be aware and cognizant of common red flags and what do when these situations arise.  Inconsistent application of policies is often at the core of discrimination complaints.

While office romances might be on the rise, these steps will be a start to help manage and mitigate any potential litigation risks.

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