Whether we like it or not, romance in the workplace often is inevitable. Most people spend more of their waking hours with their co-workers than anyone else in their lives. In light of that, it is not beyond comprehension that, on occasion, a romantic relationship will result. However, while the employees in question may be basking in the light of new found love, the company’s administration may not view the relationship with the same amount of fervor. In fact, work place romances can create myriad issues and can easily turn into a HR nightmare if not handled properly.
Adoption and uniform enforcement of a written “romance” policy is a company’s best protection against workplace relationship backlash. The policy can be tailored to suit the individual needs of the company, but should include some key components, such as mandatory disclosure of the relationship to a designated individual, an acknowledgment that the relationship is consensual, recognition, in writing, of acceptable workplace conduct under the circumstances, and a written release indicating that the company will not be responsible for legal claims that may arise out of or in connection with the relationship.
While some companies may prefer to have a strict non-fraternization policy prohibiting relationships among employees, this could prove unrealistic and ultimately result in larger problems for the employer, including greater exposure to liability and potential loss of valuable employees. If a company chooses a total ban on workplace relationships, employees may change jobs in order to continue their relationships in the open. Losing talented employees that a company likely invested time, money and other resources in is not necessarily sound business practice.
Having a set policy will help create an understanding among employees about what is appropriate and how relationships with fellow employees should be handled. It also allows the employer to take a more hands-off approach when it comes to the personal lives of employees and allows the employees to make decisions with full knowledge of the potential consequences to their employment.
Of course, things become more complicated when the relationship is between employees who are in the same chain of command. Reports of favoritism by other employees likely cannot be avoided. However, despite the headache this will cause the human resources personnel, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, has held that isolated favoritism as a result of a consensual romantic relationship may be unfair, but it is not illegal and does not violate Title VII. Mandel v. UBS Painewebber, Inc., 373 N.J. Super. 55 (App. Div 2004). Even though this conduct is not illegal, in order to keep the peace and protect its interests, the company’s administration needs to ensure that it does not allow for the creation of a culture where employees feel they need to engage in relationships with their superiors to get ahead. A well written policy and uniform enforcement may be the company’s best asset in combating this problem.
If your company does not have a non-fraternization or “romance” policy, a qualified employment attorney can assist you in protecting your company from exposure. It is also recommended that all employment policies be periodically reviewed to ensure optimal compliance with the changing times.