Monday, February 9, 2015

Workplace Dating - A Path to the Altar or Unemployment

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and some say that love is in the air.  It’s a beautiful thing unless it’s happening in the workplace – then it can be fraught with problems.

The first problem is that it’s almost impossible to effectively prohibit dating in the workplace, given that people spend a great deal of their lives at work and form attachments and interests in their co-workers. Sometimes relationships blossom and the couple live happily ever after. This can still raise accusations of favoritism if one of the parties in the relationship has supervisory authority and can influence advancement or wage increases for the other. Although rarely successful, co-workers who believed they have been disadvantaged by  the relationship, may make gender discrimination claims.

In addition to the above situation, employers often face one of these problems: one person is interested and the other isn’t or a couple dates for a time and one breaks it off.  Most people know the routine, Employees A and B work together, with A possessing at least the appearance of having more influence in the organization. B is nice and makes sure that B’s work with A goes well. Employee A construes B’s niceness as personal interest and is maybe a little flirtatious with B, who goes along with it because B isn’t really sure that A is personally interested and doesn’t want to embarrass himself or herself by confronting the issue only to find that it’s not true, or it’s a case where B gets along fine with A and doesn’t want to get on A’s bad side because of the perceived (or real)  influence that A has.   A asks B out. B sort of skirts the issue. A repeatedly asks B out until finally A says no. A is hurt and shows it. B is afraid that A will try to harm B’s position or reputation in the firm. B may complain to a manager if for no other reason than as a preemptive strike against what B fears that A might do and also to avoid having to work with A because now B feels awkward around A.

Another common scenario is when Employees A and B date for a while and then A breaks it off. B is angry, or hurt, or both, or isn’t sure, but knows that the sight of A is infuriating and wants A to suffer. B starts a subtle campaign at work to discredit A and polarize co-workers. B’s behavior is wrong, many people feel awkward and the workplace is disrupted by either or both of A and B’s actions.

The challenge for employers in all these situations is that probably none of the behaviors described above rises to the level of sexual harassment as defined by the law and anyway a sexual harassment policy already should exist to address that.  Nevertheless the behaviors are disruptive to the workplace. So how do employers deal with the disappointments and jealousies that come with romantic rejection in the workplace?

Some employers institute a no dating policy. The flaw in that, as we know, is that if two people are really attracted to each other, they might ignore the policy and date anyway, thinking that they will keep it quiet. These things never stay a secret, and the employer has to then be prepared to discipline or discharge the employees even if they haven’t created any problems in the workplace, and even if the employees are good workers and valuable to the organization.

Other employers try the “love contract”. These are agreements that employers make employees sign wherein the employee acknowledges the relationship with the fellow employee and waives and releases the employer from any liability that might arise as a result of the relationship. The problem here is that, again, employees often think that they can keep their relationship secret and so they don’t report it. Again, the employer is forced to discipline or discharge employees, who might otherwise be valuable contributors to the organizations. The other problem is that even if employees sign the love contract, it doesn’t prevent the workplace awkwardness.

Rather than trying to prevent employees from showing interest in each other – BECAUSE THAT DOESN’T WORK – we suggest that employers implement a policy which, as opposed to prohibiting dating, makes employees responsible if the workplace is disrupted by the relationship.  The theory is that sexual harassment policies make employees aware of their legal obligations, but employers need a complementary policy to address behavior that doesn’t rise to the level of harassment, but is nonetheless inappropriate.

The below suggested policy appeared in a human resource publication and the simplicity of it is appealing:

Any relationship at or away from work that affects your ability to do your job or our ability to effectively and efficiently operate the agency or company, may be a valid reason for discipline or discharge.

The policy doesn’t prevent dating, only the behavior that might follow when people become disappointed as a result. It’s expansive enough to cover all the situations described above, plus many more. Additionally, it allows for flexibility for the employer in response to dating situations ranging from no action in response to relationships that cause no disruption to discharge of an employee whose behavior creates egregious problems or represents a serious lack of judgment.
Stop trying to regulate romance in the workplace – it just can’t be done. Instead give employees a warning that if it blows up at work, it could cost them their job. Ah, love.