HR Tip of the Week

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Workplace Dating: A Guide for Employers

With Valentine's Day right around the corner, a small business owner overhears two employees discussing their upcoming date. The business owner knows that office relationships can negatively impact the workplace. Favoritism, conflicts of interest, and even sexual harassment complaints can disrupt productivity and influence morale, especially if the relationship sours. She considers adopting a policy on workplace relationships.

The following are factors this business owner and other employers should consider before instituting a policy on workplace relationships:

Evaluate policy options.

Look at your company culture and applicable laws to decide what type of policy makes sense for your business. You might have difficulty enforcing an outright ban on all workplace dating. However, employers generally may discourage workers from entering relationships when there might be a conflict of interest, such as a supervisor-employee relationship, or an HR-manager relationship. Keep in mind that some states prohibit employers from taking adverse action against employees for lawful off-duty conduct.

Develop standards of conduct.

Distribute written policies about the type of workplace conduct you expect from supervisors and employees. For example, employers can expect employees to maintain a professional environment and refrain from public displays of affection while on-duty and on company premises. Employers can also expect supervisors and employees to avoid favoritism in the workplace. If you learn that a personal relationship could be disrupting the work environment, investigate the situation.

Consider disclosure.

Some employers require that employees disclose their workplace romance to their supervisor or HR. With knowledge of the relationship, employers can minimize the impact to the business, confirm the relationship is consensual, or perhaps modify the reporting structure, if necessary.

Respond when necessary.

When co-workers are dating, some employers will only intercede if the relationship negatively affects the workplace, or if one of the employees has violated a workplace policy, such as an anti-harassment policy.

Implement an anti-harassment policy.

Even if you don't have a policy specifically on office dating, you should have a written policy prohibiting sexual harassment. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. For example, harassment may occur when a supervisor tells an employee that she will get a promotion if she dates him. Harassment may also occur when an employee sends unwanted sexual text messages to a co-worker. In your policy, provide examples of prohibited conduct, address consequences for violating the policy, and set forth a clear procedure for employee complaints.

Develop an effective complaint process.

Encourage employees to report inappropriate conduct, without fear of reprisal, before it becomes severe or pervasive, whether they are a victim or a witness. Offer employees multiple avenues through which they can file complaints. If an employee is not comfortable reporting an incident to their supervisor, make sure the employee has the contact information for an HR representative or another manager trained to field the complaint.

Investigate.

If you receive a complaint or otherwise learn of a workplace relationship affecting the work environment, investigate promptly, thoroughly, and impartially. Take all complaints seriously. Interview the parties involved separately as well as any witnesses. If an investigation reveals that a policy violation occurred, take immediate and appropriate corrective action to remedy the situation and prevent it from recurring.

Train supervisors.

Train supervisors on your policies and how to report and respond to situations that affect employees and the work environment. For instance, supervisors should know how to identify and respond to sexual harassment and how to handle situations in which a workplace relationship results in lower morale or productivity.

Conclusion

With the amount of time spent at work, it may not be surprising when personal relationships develop between employees. Clearly defining inappropriate conduct, and training supervisors to promptly address such conduct, can minimize the negative impact of workplace dating.

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