By:  Kim Adamson

In a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (“SHRM”), 33% of U.S. workers report that they are currently or have been involved in a workplace romance, up from 27% before the COVID pandemic.  Of those employees, 26% either began a new relationship during the pandemic or have continued a workplace romance that started before the pandemic.  65% who are or have been involved in a workplace romance dated their peers, while 12% dated their subordinates, and 19% dated their superiors.  50% of the employees surveyed stated they have or had a crush on someone they work with, and 35% have gone on a date with someone from their workplace.  84% of employees said they are comfortable with and respect fellow employees’ workplace relationships.  77% of employees stated that their employer does not require them to disclose a workplace romance.  Not surprisingly, the survey also revealed that 77% of people in workplace romances do not disclose their relationship to Human Resources or their manager.  Other data indicates that the number of executives dating their subordinates is down as their behavior has been under more scrutiny following the #MeToo movement.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO of SHRM, stated, “if workers are finding romance in the workplace, it is key that employers have a workplace romance policy in place to prevent harmful situations should relationships go awry.”  Such policies are often put in place not to interfere with employee-workplace relationships but to protect employees from favoritism, retaliation, or sexual harassment. ”  He further added that it is the responsibility of HR professionals “to encourage transparency and professionalism while providing information in acceptable and unacceptable conduct, including instructions on when relationships need to be reported and to whom.”

Managing workplace romances is a problematic topic for HR professionals. It is among their most challenging assignments and involves weighing the fairness of employees’ right to privacy and the possibility of legal liability for the company if the relationship goes sour and one employee alleges harassment or pressure from another employee seeking an unwanted relationship, particularly if it involves a supervisor.

Workplace romances can create a risk to a company and a disruptive atmosphere that includes gossip and lack of trust issues. They may also adversely affect employee morale and productivity of the romantic partners and co-workers due to workplace distractions because of the relationship.  Workplace romances can occasionally lead to serious problems such as workplace and sexual harassment, workplace violence, abuse of power, favoritism and retaliation scenarios, and confidentiality breaches.

Employers and HR professionals should consider the importance of having written, clear policies that encourage honesty and transparency.  Well-developed policies based on the company’s size and culture will help manage expectations of workplace romances and mitigate problems.  Workplace romance policies should include the following:

  • Mandatory disclosure of the relationship to HR and managers so the employer may determine whether the relationship poses a conflict of interest or perception of unfairness.
  • The employees’ disclosure should be documented in writing and include a statement that the parties are in a consensual romantic relationship, the date the relationship began, and that the parties will abide by the company’s workplace romance policies and all other policies, including harassment, sexual harassment, anti-retaliation, and confidentiality. The parties should agree to maintain professional behavior in the work environment, including refraining from public displays of affection, flirting, and other “dating behavior” while at the office or at company-sponsored functions.
  • Penalties for failure to report the workplace relationship.
  • Relationships between supervisors and subordinates should remain off-limits.
  • A statement that the policy should not be interpreted to interfere with employees’ rights under federal, state, or local laws.
  • The employer and HR should host regular training sessions on managing workplace romances to ensure leadership, managers, and all staff know and understand the policies and procedures.
  • To mitigate risk, the employer and HR should also provide annual training programs related to sexual harassment and anti-retaliation policies and reporting procedures to ensure all employees are aware of the policies and procedures.

Companies need to acknowledge that banning workplace relationships is not realistic.  The goal is not to interfere with workplace relationships but to establish policies that protect the company and all of its employees.  If you have questions about creating workplace romance policies and procedures to mitigate risk, contact ILG Strategic Services or work with your counsel for assistance.

SHRM survey of 550 U.S. workers, January 2022: