Sexual Harassment and Romance in the Workplace

“Don’t date your honey where you get your money,” sounds like great advice in today’s workplace climate. In fact, office romance is at a 10-year low, according to CareerBuilder’s Annual 2018 Valentine’s Day survey conducted by The Harris Poll. They report 36% of workers reported dating a co-worker, which is down from 41% a year ago.

As Millennials become the largest workplace population, there is no reason to believe the workplace dating trend will cease. Polls show millennials are more likely to engage in office romance when compared to earlier generations. They see these romantic relationships as having positive effects such as improved performance and morale, and many see no negative effects. They are also more likely to speak up if someone gets out of line with them inappropriately. At three years old this generation was raised to speak up if someone touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable. Fortunately, they bring that culture of resistance with them to the workplace.

Office romance can suddenly turn to harassment when the relationship turns sour and the attention is no longer welcomed by one of the parties. A one-sided split can be awkward causing 6% of workers to leave their jobs. There are a number of ways that workplace romances can turn into possible harassment claims such as:

  • When a subordinate employee claims they consented to a sexual relationship only because the conditions of their job was threatened, g., demotion, pay cut, being moved to a less desirable location or given less desirable work, etc.
  • When third parties in the workplace see the consenting relationship as jeopardizing to their careers when they perceive the superior displaying favoritism to their mate
  • When the breakup is nasty, and either one harasses the other while at work
  • When one falsely accuses the ex-partner of workplace harassment just for getting revenge.

Unfortunately, the list above consists of complaint issues that landed in dispute.

Since we can conclude workplace romances are here to stay, consider a policy that encourages employees to come forward and declare their romance via what is commonly called a “love contract.” 42% of employers responding to a SHRM (Society for Human Resources Managers) survey said they already had such a love contract in place. A love contract might feel awkward for some employees and could be a revolving door for HR (someone has to monitor). It could put the company in the middle of “too much information,” and who can/will police it. 41% or employee romances are kept secret anyway and what about the consenting relationships where fidelity is an issue. Chances are you won’t have those affairs being declared for sure.

If the company, however, chooses the love contract route, it is a transparent pro-active effort to acknowledge a workplace relationship is consensual and that the couple will abide by stated rules of professional and acceptable behavior in the workplace. The love contract should address conflicts of interest in hierarchical relationships and how they can affect the work environment. It is important that employees understand how such relationships pose the greatest risk to the organization by increasing the perception of favoritism, charges of discrimination and creating uncomfortable work environments for others that could elevate to claims of hostility.

I would not recommend a supervisor provide tips to employees on how to handle a sour workplace relationship. Unless you are a trained counselor, you could potentially make things worse. If you must say/do something, maybe, acknowledge your observations and suggest they contact EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or google for ideas on how to recover from broken romantic relationships. If problems arise, stick to the same guidelines you would for enforcing any workplace policy and address with consistency.

There is no need for a supervisor to snoop or pry, however, chances are, you will hear about office romance anyway. According to a SHRM survey, 67% of office romances are revealed through gossip. So, be prepared. As a leader, be willing to engage the discussion when employees inquire and/or you feel there is a business need to address.

For most employers, mutual flirting and dating are fine if it is consensual, and the relationship follows company dating or fraternizing stipulated guidelines. So, relax. After all, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson met in the workplace.

This blog post is an excerpt taken from a pending book by Sharon Harrington. She assists organizations in navigating conflict by helping to build skills that embrace prevention measures and create empowering environments that support self-mediation. She is a learning professional who has spent over 25 years tackling tough issues surrounding charges of unfair treatment in the workplace that reach the attention EEOC.