I’ve been a bit of a Donna Downer over the past two weeks. With 15 harassment/respectful workplace training sessions, I have repeatedly explained the following:
Relationships fail at an alarming rate. Think of all the relationships you suffer through before you get married. Could be a lot, right? Then, only 50 percent of marriages last. So if you start a relationship at work, it might not last. Are you ready for that?
Fifteen percent of relationships start at work. This means that employers – and probably more than a few HR folk – wring their hands over what could happen with a relationship at work. They may be worried about harassment, favoritism, and the distraction. But they are also worried about the break-up. Will the couple be professional? Will they be petty? Will their harassment and retaliation policies be invoked? There are all sorts of worry. Here’s what I’d like us to worry about.
Professionalism. When we’re dating someone, we’re not professional. We don’t keep physical contact to handshakes. We may (overly) use emojis in emails and messages. We share secrets, gossip, and vent about work stuff with our significant others. These are all examples of behavior that is rarely “professional.”
Confidentiality. Being in a relationship at work may mean we’re sharing sensitive and confidential information with someone who should not have the information. If one of the couple is in payroll, processing bonus checks before bonuses are announced and shares what his partner is going to get before the announcement, this is a problem. When we’re in the relationship, we believe we could trust our partner, yet people make mistakes. Information goes farther than it should. People find out about decisions before we’re ready to share them and
Harassment. When couples get too touchy-feely in the workplace, others are uncomfortable. As Black Widow once told Captain America, “Public displays of affection make people uncomfortable.” When others are uncomfortable, harassment policies come into play. It is not unusual to see another employee complain of harassment, especially when they believe (rightly or not) that favoritism is rearing its ugly head.
Chain of command. When a relationship involves a manager and one of her employees, everything gets more complicated. There will be allegations of favoritism. If (when) the couple is in conflict with each other, it may (will) affect their working relationship. Some of my clients prohibit these kinds of relationships, and I don’t blame them. We may change the reporting structure, transfer one to a different shift or department. The risks here given the imbalance of power are significant.
With those concerns, some employers resort to love contracts. Please don’t. Love contracts give the appearance that the employer is dictating the terms and conditions of the romance. And, with the piece of paper, we look even more like we’re heavily monitoring the relationship. Not a good look. That said, HR and a manager can certainly have a conversation with the couple about their responsibilities to be professional and avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests. This conversation should happen. It even should be documented by HR, but please don’t have a love contract signed by the couple. We want to be human at work, not overlords.
Despite some of the content of this post, I’m a huge fan of love. We go into love with big eyes, big hearts, and bushy tails – as it should be. When that love happens at work, there’s a new level of complexity where we have to be careful. Call your friendly neighborhood employment attorney.