Is There Still a Place for Romance in the Workplace?

“Who is the new guy in marketing?” Debbie asks Ashley. “He is cute; I wonder if he is single!” “I don’t know,” replies Ashley, “Why don’t you say ‘hi’ and introduce yourself.”

Does this conversation sound familiar? My guess is your answer is “yes.” According to a survey conducted in 2017 by Vault, approximately 57 percent of those surveyed stated they have participated in an office romance. However, considering recent media coverage of sexual harassment in the workplace, will we continue to see romance in the workplace flourish, or is this the end of office romances?

Coworkers can spend countless hours together, which can lead to learning about each other on a more personal level. People start to learn about other’s likes, dislikes, worries, concerns, and interests. Individuals you work with also have a better understanding of the work you do and the pressures and stress that come along with that type of work. This can create a bond between two people which could lead to more. Work is also viewed as a safe place to meet people. Let’s face it –  trying to meet people in the bar or club scene can be very difficult.

Put all that together and you have an environment in which love can thrive. Which is not all bad. Studies have shown that office romances can increase job satisfaction, motivation, and morale overall, says University of Alabama law professor Daiquiri Steele. “Office romances have also been found to lead to increased creativity — to add more dynamic energy to the workplace,” Steele says.

In fact, even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has weighed in. “There is no way we are going to stop office romances, and that should not be what we are setting out to do,” says Chai Feldblum, a commissioner at the EEOC, who recently co-wrote a report on workplace harassment. “It doesn’t need to be the end of office romances. It needs to be a catalyst for employers to think about what they don’t want happening in their workplaces that will cause people to feel uncomfortable and not wanting to show up at work.”

So how do you make sure employees feel comfortable at work? First, make sure you have a well-written policy against sexual harassment which meets applicable legal standards. The sexual harassment policy is commonly incorporated into the employee handbook with an acknowledgement of receipt.

Second, employers may want to draft a policy on dating in the workplace. This type of policy includes the prohibition against supervisors and subordinates entering into a romantic relationship, because this type of romantic relationship not only has the potential for legal risks, but can also bring up employee relations concerns. If a supervisor is dating a subordinate, and the relationship ends, there is a heightened potential for a sexual harassment complaint. For example, if the supervisor later takes corrective action, or gives an unfavorable performance review, the employee could claim the motive was retaliation for ending the relationship. Or the employee could claim that the personal involvement with the supervisor was based on fear of the supervisor’s threats or promises. In addition, intimate relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate can lead to perceptions of favoritism, resulting in resentment among co-workers, and mistrust of management. Sample dating in the workplace language as well as legal and administrative considerations in drafting such a policy can be found in the Employee Handbook Planning Guide on the Employers Council website.

Third, consider offering training in the area of sexual harassment so employees understand what type of behavior rises to the level of sexual harassment (i.e. illegality) versus inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Training can also be provided specifically for supervisors, making them aware of the pitfalls of dating a subordinate.

Finally, look to your company culture. Do you embrace employees making personal connections at work, ignore personal relationships until there appears to be a conflict, or do you outright ban such relationships? All three approaches will have a different impact on company culture. Keep in mind that banning romantic relationships can ultimately create a culture of secrecy. As we know, romantic relationships will continue to develop in the workplace, and banning them will just drive this behavior underground.

In circling back around, the answer to my question above, “Is this the end of office romances?” is “No.” Companies will continue to see romantic relationships develop. Some of those relationships will ultimately fail. However, keep in mind that sometimes when two co-workers meet it is the “real thing.” The author is living proof of that fact: I fell in love with and married a man I met at work.