Romantic relationships can form unexpectedly between colleagues or between supervisors and one of their employees. Given romance’s unpredictable nature, it helps to have an open work environment in which employees feel comfortable speaking with managers about relationships that may affect the business. Employers have several options to address romance in the workplace:
Have no policy pertaining to office romances (not recommended)
Office romances can affect employee performance and morale, conflict with company culture, and increase your risk of liability. Having no policy whatsoever restricts your ability to effectively respond to a number of high-risk situations. At a minimum, you’d want to prohibit sexual behavior in the workplace as well as discourage romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates.
Prohibit all dating (not recommended)
Some companies prohibit all romantic relationships among employees, but we don’t recommend this policy. Office romances are a natural effect of people working long hours in close proximity. Prohibiting these relationships does not actually stop them from forming and often only serves to encourage secrecy.
Prohibit dating between supervisors and their direct reports
Romantic relationships between supervisors and their direct reports may be consensual, but they can pose some serious risks, like establishing a conflict of interest, harassment claims, and creating a perception of favoritism. The imbalance of power in the relationship creates risk that could influence certain behaviors as a condition of employment. You also don’t want one dating employee entrusted with making decisions regarding the other on matters like performance management, promotions, compensation, or termination.
Permit dating of colleagues, but require the signing of a consensual relationship agreement
Some employers have romantically-involved employees sign a consensual relationship agreement. The employees acknowledge that their relationship is voluntary and consensual and that neither their relationship nor its termination will adversely affect job performance, violate company policy, or create any conflicts of interest. The agreement doesn’t prevent harassment claims or lawsuits, but it documents that the employees understand it is their responsibility to maintain a professional working relationship.
The option or options you choose might ultimately come down to what kind of company culture you have or want to have. Please note, however, that outright non-fraternization policies have the potential to violate section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. Employees have a legal right to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment without an employer’s interference. Courts have found that use of the word “fraternize” without additional explanation could potentially discourage employees from exercising their rights.
Whatever path you take, you definitely want to have an environment of trust. If employees are afraid to make their relationship known, they’ll be more likely to date covertly, hiding situations and indictments that could increase your liability.