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Workplace Dating: Do's and Don'ts for Employers

With the amount of time spent at work, it may not be surprising when romantic relationships develop between employees. When they do, concerns about favoritism, bickering, conflicts of interest, and sexual harassment may arise. With Valentine's Day just a few days away, here are some do's and don'ts for addressing workplace dating.

Do:

Evaluate policy options.

Look at your company culture and applicable laws to decide what type of workplace dating policy makes sense for your business. You might have difficulty enforcing an outright ban on all workplace dating. However, employers 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.

Develop standards of conduct.

Distribute written policies about your expectations concerning workplace conduct. 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. If you learn that a personal relationship could be disrupting the work environment, investigate the situation.

Implement an anti-harassment policy.

All employers should have a written policy that prohibits sexual and other forms of harassment and outlines the company's complaint process (note that some states and local jurisdictions require such policies). Make clear that you expect employees to abide by the policy during work hours as well as after hours and outside of the workplace. Define sexual and other forms of harassment broadly. Ban conduct that is prohibited by the law as well as conduct that you would consider inappropriate in the workplace and provide specific examples. Additionally, prohibit any actions where it's expressed or implied that submission to unwelcome behavior will be used as the basis for employment decisions, such as promotions or benefits.

Consider requiring disclosure.

Some employers require that employees disclose their workplace romance to their supervisor or HR. If you choose that route, be clear about what situations need to be reported. With knowledge of the relationship, employers can take steps to help minimize the impact to the business. Consider meeting with the employees individually to confirm the relationship is consensual. Remind them that they are expected to remain professional in the workplace and that their relationship cannot interfere with performance. In some cases, employers may also consider modifying the reporting structure to avoid a conflict of interest.

Train supervisors and employees.

Some states and local jurisdictions require employers to provide training on sexual harassment. Even in the absence of a specific requirement, it's a best practice to provide training. Supervisors should also receive additional training tailored to their role, including training on how to identify and respond to sexual harassment and how to address situations in which a workplace relationship impacts productivity.

Don't:

Don't give employees just one avenue to complain.

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.

Don't wait until conduct becomes severe.

Encourage employees to report inappropriate conduct before it becomes severe or pervasive, whether they are a victim or a witness. If you receive a complaint or otherwise learn of a workplace relationship affecting the work environment, investigate promptly, thoroughly, and impartially. 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 reoccurring.

Don't violate laws protecting lawful off-duty conduct.

Some states prohibit employers from taking adverse action against employees for lawful off-duty conduct. While these laws may protect employees who are simply dating outside of work, they won't condone conduct that would impact the workplace, such as favoritism on the job or harassment (including harassment that takes place outside the workplace).

Don't disregard power differentials.

Sometimes victims of sexual harassment and other misconduct don't report it, citing a concern that it will impact their career or cause additional trauma if they came forward. In some cases, there is a significant power differential between the accused and the accuser (for example, a top executive and an employee just beginning their career), which can make responding to and reporting misconduct especially difficult. In such cases, the idea that both parties entered the relationship consensually could be challenged.

Don't fail to take steps to prevent retaliation.

Encourage employees to come forward with complaints without fear of reprisal and provide a process for employees to report retaliation claims. Include anti-retaliation provisions in equal employment opportunity, ethics, anti-harassment, workplace conduct, and other policies where appropriate. Provide supervisors and HR personnel with training on what types of conduct may constitute retaliation and how to respond if an employee complains of misconduct. During the investigation, remind all parties that they are prohibited from retaliating against the individuals who complained or participated in the investigation. Follow up with employees to ensure that retaliation isn't occurring.

Conclusion:

Policies and training addressing workplace dating and sexual harassment can help minimize the negative impact of workplace romances.

Want to learn more about how to address workplace dating? Check out the latest HR{preneur}TM podcast episode: The Perils of Workplace Dating. Subscribe and listen today!

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