It's February, and you know what that means?! Heart-shaped decorations, chocolate candy, flowers, dinner reservations, valentine cards…. Love is in the air, and some will say love is grand – unless you are in charge of human resources in your clinic and an office romance is brewing.
Let’s be honest; there isn't anything wrong with two people falling in love. It is all the other "stuff" that goes along with it – the constant texting, phone calls, extended lunch dates, coming to work late or leaving early, the sly glances as they pass each other in the hall, the secret meetings in an empty room. Suddenly, that brewing romance gets hotter and affects the rest of the team.
Most people have heard the horror stories of an office romance that went sour. Everything from problems with workplace distraction, the tension between team members, scheduling demands (to avoid working with the ex), drama in the workplace, favoritism, retaliation… or worse, sexual harassment or toxic workplace claims, and even violence. Sometimes, a brewing romance can boil over, resulting in the business itself being burned. So what can you do to keep the romance at a simmer?
For starters, understand you can’t outlaw office romances. As the saying goes, “things forbidden have a secret charm.” (The Roman historian and orator, Tacitus, understood human nature – and apparently, it hasn’t changed much). Banning office romance is not realistic or feasible. Prohibiting workplace relationships won’t prevent romance; it will only cause it to happen in secret. And you can't dictate what people do in their private lives. However, you can mitigate the chance that the romance harms the team or the business by having clear policies and taking immediate action when behaviors affect the team.
Notice the first step – have clear policies. You have clear policies on dress code, harassment, conduct, insubordination, and conflict of interest. Create one on where the business stands on workplace relationships. For example, what if there is a supervisor and a direct report in a relationship? Is there a policy saying this is not permitted, and one of them must resign? Does the policy say that people in a romantic work relationship must act professionally, without public displays of affection? A manager’s job is much easier when there are clear boundaries about inappropriate behavior and standards of conduct.
The other half of mitigating risk is taking action. Of course, bad behavior is actionable, and most managers won’t wait to discuss inappropriate behavior in the workplace. But, having a policy in place about workplace relationships makes it easier for the manager to discuss expectations and clarify harassment policies before a bad situation arises. Examples include playing favorites, requesting the same days off, or leaving assigned areas to be together - all of which put a strain on the rest of the team. Moreover, a strained team starts to gossip and becomes resentful. Soon, productivity goes down, and the once family-friendly environment turns into a family feud environment. Since a workplace romance can affect more than just the two parties involved, it is important to review the policies with the two people when the relationship is starting. Of course, this requires that the manager is aware of the relationship.
Many policies include a statement about notifying management when a relationship starts between two team members (or even with a client or vendor). However, some people are not comfortable disclosing that they are in a relationship. For instance, if one or both in the relationship are in an extramarital affair (they don’t want the spouse/partner to find out) or if those involved are LGBTQ and they fear backlash from disclosing the relationship. Some managers may feel that “ignorance is bliss,” but not when the office rumor mill is on hyper-drive or the relationship sours.
A relationship that has soured presents additional risks for the business. From retaliatory actions against the other party to filing claims of sexual harassment, ignoring the office romance is risky business. Don’t think that the annual sexual harassment training is good enough. Managers should discuss concerns and make the pair aware of how the relationship could impact specific aspects of the work environment (e.g., vacation scheduling, assignments, and inappropriate comments at work, to list a few).
While some may decide to add verbiage to the current employee handbook Code of Conduct (which includes anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies) or Conflict of Interest sections, others may choose to write a separate policy such as a Consensual Relationship Agreement or "Love Contract." When the parties disclose the relationship, they sign the agreement and spend some time discussing all those potential pitfalls. The goal of having a policy is not to interfere with the relationship but to protect the business and the team by setting clear expectations of personal conduct. Don’t wait to react when there is a problem; lay out the rules before you need them. As with any policy statement, consult an attorney.
Not every office romance is bad. The happiness and contentment one experiences when in a relationship can make for a more positive work environment. For some, it can result in a long-term commitment and long-term employees.
The reality is that some people are attracted to someone they work with, which may affect the workplace environment. Therefore, the business must have guidelines and expectations for maintaining a professional environment. Just remember, love is not complicated, but people are.