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More companies creating policies to address workplace romance

  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, at 11:31 p.m.

The American workplace has changed over the years: Women have steadily joined the workforce, and the average number of hours an American works each week has crept higher.

As workers spend more time on the job, it’s no wonder that social and romantic relationships develop in the workplace.

Surprisingly, romantic relationships in the workplace can be beneficial to an organization. If workplace romance progresses smoothly, companies may notice improved performance in the form of a positive workplace dynamic, improved employee morale, effective communication and increased creativity.

Unfortunately, relationships do not always run smoothly. Romance in the workplace can be extremely difficult to manage, not only for the lovebirds themselves, but for companies that are concerned that the romance will cause unwelcome distractions.

Even worse for a company, though, is the potential for such a situation to cause a lawsuit — a failed relationship in the office has the potential to turn into a costly sexual harassment suit.

As a result, more and more companies are creating policies to address workplace romance. Of those with policies, few prohibit employees from engaging in romantic relationships altogether — perhaps in part because such a policy can be almost impossible to enforce.

However, many employers are taking the time to outline what is and is not acceptable in the workplace.

For example, some companies include agreements stating that an involved employee will not seek an immediate supervisory role over a romantic partner. Others ask employees not to engage in physical displays of affection in the workplace. At the very least, a company should have a policy defining sexual harassment and establishing a no-tolerance protocol.

Some employers’ policies go further by requiring employees to supply information about romantic relationships in the workplace. For instance, a policy or agreement might require employees to agree to do any or all of the following:

• Acknowledge when a relationship materializes.

• Acknowledge that the company’s sexual harassment policy is understood and agree to abide by it.

• Promise to act professionally at all times while at work (while in a relationship and after it ends).

• Promise to notify the human resources department if/when the relationship ends. This puts an employer on notice to watch for any incidents of sexual harassment and identifies the time in which a relationship was consensual.

While policies can be helpful in regard to personal relationships in the workplace, it is still important that a company seriously address any claim of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment training and awareness programs can help to prevent some claims, but employers who receive a complaint of harassment should conduct a thorough, prompt and impartial investigation, no matter what the relationship between the parties involved.

Katie Loehrke is a human resources subject matter expert and editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, a compliance resource firm. For more information, go to www.jjkeller.com

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