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Savvy HR in the Age of the Office Romance

With Americans spending so much time on the job, it is no surprise that many romances begin in the office. In the most recent American Time Use Survey, Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 with children in their household spent an average of 8.7 hours on working and related activities each weekday. Leisure time paled in comparison at 2.5 hours on a typical working day. And workplace relationships are not just for singles; according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 1 in 6 office romances are “affairs” with one or both of the parties having a spouse or significant other.

For human resources (HR), workplace relationships can be a disaster, especially because SHRM reports that a remarkable 67 percent of office romances come to the attention of human resources or company management through office gossip. HR is often the last to know yet still bears the burden of putting policies in place that protect both the company and employees from the potential repercussions of workplace relationships.

Now, more than ever, companies need savvy HR in the age of the office romance:

1. Require Disclosure of the Relationship

Although some companies have an outright ban on office romance, a more thoughtful approach is for human resources to require disclosure once a relationship takes hold. Most states do permit strict HR policies prohibiting relationships with co-workers, but the sheer amount of time spent in the office by people may undermine the practicality of such codes of conduct. However, HR can and should require that employees divulge a relationship to a unit or HR manager in the organization. The disclosure of the relationship should also be documented by human resources.

2. Differentiate Relationships in the Context of the Organization

Whereas workplace romance may be more prevalent than ever, all office relationships are not the same. In 2013, a SHRM Survey found that 99% of all companies polled had an explicit policy prohibiting workplace romance between a supervisor and a direct report. That number dropped to 12% when it involved employees in different departments with no hierarchical association in the chain of command.

Therefore depending upon who is involved, human resource policies should distinguish between different kinds of office relationships. Outright bans can be premised on whether employees are in the same department, report to the same manager or act in a supervisory or subordinate role to the other party. There is an organizational context to each romance, and the significance of the relationship to the company must be viewed relative to the parties’ roles.

3. Consider Consensual Relationship Contracts

Once HR becomes aware of an office relationship, both parties can be asked to execute a consensual relationship contract that acknowledges:

  • the relationship is mutual and consensual
  • the relationship was never a condition of the terms of employment
  • it is the responsibility of each party to ensure the relationship does not impact job performance
  • company policies specific to office relationships (e.g., a prohibition on working in the same unit and next steps if required)
  • HR expectations should the relationship end

Sound far-fetched? Consensual relationship contracts are more common than you think, and they can protect the company should the romance take a turn for the worse. They deliver an added layer of protection for the organization, and HR can communicate the benefits to personnel in a positive, proactive way.

4. Prohibit Public Displays of Affection

If office romances are a fact of working life, certain behaviors shouldn’t be. Public displays of affection, PDAs, include holding hands, kissing and outwardly public statements of fondness. These types of behaviors are not appropriate for the workplace and make colleagues feel awkward and excluded. They are disruptive to the work environment and distracting to the work at hand. Luckily for human resources, policies prohibiting public displays of affection are the norm. Employees do not hesitate to complain when they see persistent patterns of public displays of affection, and HR can intervene if they are informed of these behaviors in the office.

However, social media has opened up an entirely different can of worms when it comes to office romance as employees can post romantic events or messages for other colleagues to see. Social networks make co-workers aware of the romance and can create an uncomfortable environment within the office, yet these photos and pictures may never be picked up by HR. The increasingly complex challenges for human resources that arise from social media prompted HR Acuity® to feature social media as the special topic of interest in our current 6th Annual Employee Relations and Workplace Investigations Survey.

5. Put the Office Romance Policy in Writing

The numbers are compelling. According to Vault.com’s 2014 Office Romance Survey, 56 percent of participants acknowledge one or more office romances throughout their career. The statistics underscore how important it is to have an HR policy in writing that clearly outlines company rules regarding relationships in the workplace. Worth remembering, behavior that is not consensual can move into the realm of sexual harassment and hostile work environment.

A recent Cosmopolitan Survey, Sexual Harassment: How Common is Sexual Harassment Overall, made headlines when it reported that 1 in 3 women, ages 18 to 34, reported being sexually harassed at work. But that statistic is actually not the one that caught my eye. The striking finding was that 16% of the women surveyed did not actually realize that some of the behavior they experienced at work constituted sexual harassment. Therefore, human resources should have an explicit, written office romance policy with a zero tolerance approach towards behavior that is not consensual, and it must clearly articulate how incidents should be reported and to whom.

6. Follow Documentation Protocols

Employees are sensitive to workplace relationships for obvious reasons. In the Vault.com Survey, respondents reported incidents when co-workers in relationships with supervisors got undue promotions or protections during layoffs. The reality is that it is much easier for a disenfranchised co-worker to suggest wrongdoing when workplace politics are muddled with an office romance, which opens an organization up to employee relations risk.

Misconduct should be documented by managers and HR professionals in the company, and if the allegation is in the context of an existing relationship in the office, the situation should be made clear in the notes. Should a full workplace investigation ensue, use the HR Acuity checklist to compile a complete, defensible workplace investigation case file. Office break-ups can change the perception of behavior in the workplace; what was once consensual can be perceived as disruptive or harassing. And although employees may believe that the hours spent at work justify the pursuit of an office romance, the implications for the organization can be serious nonetheless, so HR must have documentation protocols in place.

It’s not a question of if, but when. In this age of office romance where people spend ⅓ of the day working and the lines that differentiate work-life balance continue to blur, ensure that your company has a comprehensive, written HR policy and documentation procedures in place to safeguard the organization from the inevitable fallout of workplace relationships. This spring, should love blossom in the office, make sure your organization is prepared as only thoughtful, savvy HR will suffice.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller

Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, the employee relations case management solution that companies trust to help them track, investigate, and analyze employee issues the right way.