Without Formal Policies, Office Romance Can Hurt Your Business

By Suzanne Courvisier-Mathis, Jewelry Staffing Expert

The 2009 admission of David Letterman having relationships with several of his former staffers certainly highlights the issue of romance in the workplace. Although some may disagree, Letterman coming forward and admitting to his indiscretions, prior to this information hitting the press is the best thing he could have done for himself, his reputation and his career.

In visiting jewelry stores over the years, we find that office romances are more prevalent than you might think. After all, we spend more time with colleagues than our family and friends.

The question becomes: What policies do you have in place to deal with office relationships and sexual harassment?

The answer is that relatively few companies have formal policies in place governing workplace romance and/or sexual harassment. We believe this leaves you wide open to potential legal problems. According to a recent study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 72% of 617 companies surveyed did not have a written policy; 14% said they had an unwritten, yet well-understood norm in their workplace, and 13% had no policy at all. If you are one of these companies without a formal policy, we highly recommend you to reconsider and implement a well-written harassment and romance policy.

In an interview with Tory Johnson, ABC News Workplace Contributor & Home Work Anchor, noted that 72% of workers who are having company romances go public with them so many companies are adapting a “love contract.” This is a contract that states their romance is consensual and relieves ownership and the company of any liability.

A “love” contact should be separate from your sexual harassment policy. Sexual harassment policies represent the law. A “love” contract is a legal document between the involved parties and their company.
Please make sure you have your legal counsel (preferably a labor lawyer) either write or approve all of your office relationship and sexual harassment policies. It’s an investment well worth making to avoid possible legal snafus.

Although we feel that a “love” contact is important to have, we have seen very few of these company romances have happy endings. Someone almost always ends up getting hurt. Yet every day, we see employees, managers, and occasionally owners and principals taking this calculated career risk. Unfortunately, we also have seen these romances or liaisons derail many careers. In addition, it can become a very uncomfortable situation for not only the parties involved but other colleagues as well.

As noted above, we sometimes see managers, owners and principals become involved with one of their employees. This is dangerous territory and we highly recommend that you consider such behavior long and hard before entering into a relationship with one of your employees. Like with Letterman, it can create a very uncomfortable situation for you and the involved party, ESPECIALLY if you have a disgruntled employee who gets wind of the relationship and tries to retaliate or “blackmail” you.

It also can become very sticky if the relationship ends. You are just begging for this person to spread lies about you – not to mention the legal ramifications, which can be devastating – distracting you from what you do best. It can and will cost you business.

Please remember there is NO such thing as a “secret” in the workplace. It is inevitable that someone will find out and it can get very ugly if you are exposed. If people do find out about your office relationship (and they will), the best thing you can do is to have a meeting with your employees as a group or individually to let them know what is going on. Some of you will maintain it is none of their business – which in theory is true. However, if you are taking the calculated risk of dating one of your employees, there is a responsibility to tell the truth to your other employees if discovered. The worst thing you can do is lie about the relationship, or try to hush the employees who know.

We recommend that like Letterman you admit to the relationship. Your employees will have a lot more respect for you if you TELL THE TRUTH rather than try to hide it. We unfortunately have seen the result of lying or trying to hide relationships with a certain president and presidential candidate.

If you DO decide to get involved romantically with one of your employees, we strongly suggest that you have your attorney draw up an agreement much like a prenuptial. Please have this drafted and signed before things go too far. It is sometimes very difficult, if not impossible, to establish such an agreement after the fact.  It is not worth it in the end, we promise you.

Here are three initiatives human resources experts believe that business owners and managers should implement to handle this delicate issue:

  • Have a formal written policy regarding workplace romances. The policy should let your employees know that you expect them to behave discreetly and professionally at work (no public displays of affection), and that any romantic relationships with their co-workers should be kept separate from work. Be very clear in detailing the consequences of violating this policy. It is also a good idea to have a policy that prohibits a supervisor or manager from dating any employee who reports directly to them.
  • Train supervisors and managers how to handle workplace romances. This is an area that is sorely lacking. Based on the SHRM study, only 12% of companies surveyed provide managers and supervisors with training on how to handle workplace romances.

It is important that your managers know how to discreetly address any issue that may arise from romantic or sexual relationships at work, as well as how to “coach” a dating couple if their relationship is affecting productivity or the work environment. Managers also should know how to deal with any negative issues that may arise in the office concerning same-sex workplace romances; how to handle office scandal concerning workplace relationships; what disciplinary actions will be taken if an office romance ends badly and the resulting behavior is disrupting the workplace; and what immediate action will be taken should an office romance turn into a sexual harassment case.

  • Have a formal written policy regarding sexual harassment. This policy should clearly define what constitutes sexual harassment (the law), detail how a sexual harassment claim will be handled and spell out what will happen if the behavior continues. The policy also should be included in your employee manual and in all company policy documents. All policies concerning sexual harassment in the workplace should be signed by EVERYONE on staff to confirm that they understand the issue, the corporate policies and the consequences.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to stop romance from happening. It is even more difficult to institute a policy of NO dating at work, because it happens so frequently when people spend so much time together. Take this issue very seriously to protect yourself and your company. Institute policies such as a “love” contract that will discharge you from liability, should your employees decide to admit to having a consensual relationship. Also, have a sexual harassment policy (the law) in place. Lastly, should you decide to engage in a relationship with one of your employees, putting such policies in place can save you from an enormous distraction – and can protect you from potential legal repercussions.

Suzanne Courvisier-Mathis is president and founder of Diamond Staffing Solutions Inc., one of the jewelry industry’s leading placement firms. Diamond Staffing Solutions is an official AGS sustaining member. Suzanne’s column mail: suzanne@diamondstaffing.com.

 

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