People are naturally social beings, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that friendships and even romances can develop at work. No employer could argue that an unfriendly workplace beats one in which workers are collaborative and actually like each other. And while friendships that turn sour rarely have a serious effect on the workplace, office romances can be more complicated, especially when the relationship involves a manager and a subordinate.
These kinds of office involvements can lead to accusations of favoritism, poor judgment, behavioral misconduct, ethics breaches or even sexual harassment. To steer clear of these issues, it’s important to establish protocols and policies regarding fraternization between managers and direct reports and for those policies to hold staff with the most authority accountable.
SET A POLICY — NOT A PROHIBITION
Your organization’s goal shouldn’t be to bar workplace romances; that would be a monumental task and a risk of violating employees’ rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The law protects workers’ rights to assemble, discuss workplace conditions and unionize. Instead of forbidding office romances, you want to set boundaries between acceptable office conduct and personal behavior, eliminate shows of favoritism, protect your organization’s integrity and minimize sexual harassment and other related claims.
You also want to maintain a work environment in which all employees feel respected, safe and productive. Office romances that go south can leave one or both of the relevant parties feeling dejected, angry, depressed or used. Employees who witnessed questionable or inappropriate conduct while the romance was going strong might have felt distracted or even embarrassed. Whatever the fallout of an office romance might be, your organization’s productivity is likely to take a hit.
STRUCTURE THE POLICY
Here’s a step-by-step guide to structuring a non-fraternization policy:
- Explain why the policy is necessary and who it affects. State the reason truthfully and clearly so that no one can say they misunderstood it.
- Prohibit romantic relationships between managers and their direct reports. This imbalance in power has spawned sexual-harassment, wrongful termination and sex discrimination claims, usually from subordinates when relationships end.
- Prohibit dating between employees who are at least two levels apart in your organization’s hierarchy. Not all employers include this rule in their policies, but it restricts fraternization between all managers and subordinates across the organization and not just between managers and direct reports.
- State what behavior is unacceptable. This rule applies to all employees. Examples include visible demonstrations of affection. Romantic liaisons that result in long, non work-related phone conversations, late lunches and chronic absenteeism are other examples of behavior that interferes with productivity.
- Outline the consequences for violating the policy. Penalties might be the same as those that apply to other policies, including termination, demotion, departmental transfer and involuntary resignation. Without clear penalties, employees are less likely to take the policy seriously. Stated penalties show you’re serious about enforcement.
- Establish an anonymous reporting process. This allows employees to report having witnessed distracting misconduct in the workplace or voice complaints about superiors.
You might want to extend your policy to include an anti-nepotism clause, which prohibits relatives from managing each other or working in the same department. The clause serves to avoid any appearance of favoritism or preferential treatment by the manager for the subordinate. An extension might be necessary if a relationship that started out as an office romance ends up becoming a marriage.
Also, take a minute to read about the potential downsides of non-fraternization policies to avoid before drafting your own.
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.