Hook Ups and Break Ups in the Workplace

More than one-third of American employees have dated a coworker, according to Harris Polls’ latest annual survey for Career Builder, so as an employer, you are going to be inevitably faced with the problems that coworker hook ups and break ups can cause in your workplace.

In the beginning of a workplace romance, it is important for employers to find out about the relationship and set the ground rules before things get messy. You can adopt a written policy that requires employees to notify the company when they “start dating”, although defining that is pretty difficult. Nowadays, does “dating’ mean they’ve had the first date, the second hook up, or just that one of them has changed his or her relationship status on Facebook?

Some employees are not going to readily tell you that a relationship has started. The Career Builder survey shows that 25% of the relationships at work involved a married coworker. So those people will probably stay quiet. However, the study also showed that 37% of employees thought they had to keep their office romance a secret at work.

As the employer, you can’t stay in the dark, so you need to assure your employees that you have to know and that you will work with them to help everyone adjust to the new coworker relationship.

Once you know about the new couple, you have to communicate your expectations to them. You can do this by written policy, a specific “love contract” that the new couple signs, or by verbal coaching, although something in writing is always preferred by your employment lawyer.

You have to address the end of the relationship in the beginning. While about 31% of workplace romances lead to marriage, the Career Builder survey says, that leaves 69% that result in a break up and the bitterness that a soured romance can cause in your workplace. Break ups can even cause good employees to leave your company (6% leave, according to that study).

Anticipating that greater than two-thirds of the dating relationships between your employees will eventually end, what are the necessary ground rules of hook ups and break ups that an employer should impose?

  • As soon as you are aware of the romance, communicate privately with each coworker to assure yourself that the relationship is mutually agreeable, voluntary and entirely welcome by both workers.
  • Give both employees a copy of the company’s sexual harassment policy and make sure they know that each of them has the right and ability to end their romantic relationship at any time without repercussions of a work-related nature and without retaliation of any form by the other employee or his/her friends at work.
  • Prohibit any sexually suggestive or amorous physical activity in the workplace: kissing and hugging; touching; romantic or sexually suggestive gestures; amorous or sexually suggestive speech or communications, whether oral or written; display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures in the workplace; and, of course, sexual contact while at work.
  • Require the dating couple to work with management to prevent or address any problems that arise, such as complaints of favoritism. This may require transfers, job changes or even voluntary termination of one of the parties to the relationship if other measures don’t resolve the problems that the relationship is causing in the workplace.
  • Get them to agree in writing that in the event of a break up, they will immediately notify you and will mediate before a neutral mediator selected by the company any dispute between them or relating to their employment before the filing of any claim, lawsuit or other charge against your company.

Of course, you will have a much more complex problem if one of the parties to this hook up is a supervisor, which happens in about 25% of the workplace relationships, according to the Career Builder survey.

Many companies have a written policy that completely prohibits bosses from dating subordinates. Absent such a policy, when a supervisor/worker situation arises in your company, at the very least you must assure that:

  • Neither party to the relationship directly supervises the other once the relationship develops.
  • Neither employee has any decision-making authority or evaluation input about the other party.
  • Neither employee asks for a promotion or seeks a position that would involve supervision of the other and both acknowledge that the relationship will automatically be considered a disqualifying event to such a promotion or job change.
  • Both parties receive additional sexual harassment training and reminder of the hotline or HR name and phone number for reporting any harassment problem.
  • Your other supervisors working with or near this couple know about the situation and how to spot and report any problem that suggests sexual harassment, favoritism or other situations that will cause, at a minimum, unwanted drama in the workplace, and at the maximum, litigation involving your company.

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