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Workplace Romance: When Coworkers Date

In a recent survey, upwards of 50% of employees say that they have been involved in some type of office romance. In another survey, 41% of employees reported that they have actually dated a coworker. With these odds, it is likely that this is a scenario lurking somewhere within most employers’ workplaces.

In the midst of the current political environment where sexual harassment is at the forefront, it is particularly important that employers carefully monitor these interoffice dating relationships to ensure that they are truly consensual and to respond correctly if and when they turn sour. The failure to do so may result in sexual harassment claims based on a whole host of theories. Examples of such claims may be based on quid pro quo harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, or even favoritism or preferential treatment.

In order to deal with dating relationships between employees, employers take varied approaches. These approaches can range from doing nothing—not recommended—to strict, “no dating” or fraternization policies—which do not tend to be particularly effective—to “love contracts” or policies whereby employees are required to disclose the relationship to the employer so that the employer may properly monitor the relationship and change reporting relationships if necessary.

In order to properly monitor dating relationships between employees, here is a checklist of some standards that employers should consider implementing:

  • In your policy, require all employees to report a dating or romantic relationship to the Human Resources department.
    • When the employer learns of a romantic or dating relationship between two employees, it may be wise to present both employees with a copy of the non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and remind the parties that they are subject thereto.
    • Employees in supervisory or managerial roles or authority over others should be subject to more stringent requirements with regard to dating other employees due to their ability to affect the terms and conditions of subordinates’ employment.
  • If the relationship is between coworkers rather than between an employee and his/her manager/supervisor, the employer should communicate the following expectations:
    • A relationship between coworkers is not prohibited, however certain rules apply while the employees are at work. While at work, both employees are expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner and may not allow the relationship to interfere with their productivity or the productivity of coworkers. Physical contact, personal displays of affection and similar gestures are inappropriate under company policy. This rule also applies during non-working time, including break periods, while the employees are at work.
    • The relationship shall be regarded by the employer as a private matter as long as the relationship does not cause problems at work. To the extent the personal relationship adversely affects the work environment for either party or other employees, such matters will be addressed promptly by the employer.
    • Employees who allow a workplace relationship to adversely affect the work environment will be subject to appropriate provisions of the employer’s disciplinary policy.
    • To the extent the relationship creates conflicts or problems in the workplace, the employees are expected to cooperate with the employer to promptly resolve any issues. The employees should be instructed to promptly report any problems or concerns so that they can be addressed immediately.
  • Relationships between an employee and his/her manager/supervisor create a conflict of interest and should be prohibited.
    • When such a relationship arises, the employer should work with the parties involved to address the conflict of interest. The employer has the discretion to reassign duties or change reporting relationships in order to avoid any actual or perceived reward or disadvantage due to the relationship. In some cases, other measures such as transferring one or both employees to other positions or departments may be necessary.
    • If one or both parties refuse to accept a reasonable solution or position, if available, the employee(s) may be deemed to have voluntarily resigned.
    • Failure to cooperate with the employer to resolve a conflict of interest or problem caused by a romantic relationship with a subordinate may be considered insubordination and result in discipline, up to and including termination.

Given the propensity of workplace dating relationships, this is an issue that employers should be aware of and be ready to handle when it arises. Again, the failure to properly monitor and handle such relationships can lead to sexual harassment or retaliation claims if, and when, the relationship turns sour.