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office romanceWe all know that dating a co-worker probably isn’t the best idea. If it ends, the best-case scenario involves awkward daily interactions with an ex. The worst-case scenario could end in allegations of sexual harassment. From a management perspective, in an ideal world, office romances would never happen.

over 40% of employees surveyed said they had previously dated or are dating someone they work with

But in the real world, coworkers sometimes fall for each other. Love doesn’t always abide by a tidy set of rules – in one study, over 40% of employees surveyed said they had previously dated or are dating someone they work with. And while office romances can be a major headache for employers, pretending they don’t happen only opens your organization up to future trouble. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, employers and managers have a responsibility to keep employees safe while also protecting the organization’s reputation.

But what does that look like in practice? Here are 4 practical steps to help people managers navigate the murky waters of office romances.

Put it in writing. Putting an office dating policy in writing is an important first step in clarifying expectations and setting out ground rules. Policy alone is not enough, but it’s a good place to start. Consider your approach to policy carefully – while you certainly don’t want to know too much about employees’ personal lives, you do want to be aware when their personal lives could impact their work. So while it’s tempting to put an outright ban on dating between coworkers, such policies don’t generally hold water legally, could be infringing on your employees’ rights, and tend to drive romantic relationships at work underground. A better approach is instituting a policy that proactively sets out expectations around disclosure, encourages open communication, bans public displays of affection, addresses reporting relationships, and includes clear procedures for reporting harassment.

Have a love contract. Request that employees disclose their personal relationships with coworkers in writing. While not enough on their own, a “love contract” or consensual relationship agreement that discloses the relationship and is signed by both parties is a good supplement to your written policy.

Not sure what that should look like? Here’s what to include in a Love Contract.

You only get one chance. Some forward-thinking organizations are revamping how they approach office romance by replacing strict “anti-fraternization” policies with more realistic, transparent and common-sense guidelines that work in the real world. Google and Facebook recently introduced a rule that you can only ask a coworker out once. After that, if they say no, or are ambiguous or unenthusiastic in their response, you are not allowed to ask again.

Consider power dynamics. While it may be tricky to outright forbid coworkers from forming intimate bonds, it is essential to set parameters around which relationships are appropriate, and which aren’t. Concerns with favouritism, inherent power imbalances, and fall-out for the organization if the relationship goes south are all reasons that intimate relationships between direct reports are inappropriate.

Your Engaged HR Assignment: In light of the recent media spotlight on workplace harassment, paying attention to how you manage office romance is a necessary part of doing business. Your exact policies should always reflect your culture, but it’s important to acknowledge the reality of office romance, and create some guidelines around what’s appropriate. So if you don’t have clear expectations set out already around office dating, it’s time to make it a priority!

Not sure how to handle romantic relationships between team members? We’ve got some best practice ideas and are here to support. We also offer the Art of HR – so that you can learn more about what obligations you may have to your ‘in-relationship’ employees and how to best manage these situations.

The Art of HR

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