Most workplace dating policies acknowledge people’s privacy in their own affairs, but also seek to protect the organization if a romantic relationship disrupts the workplace or exposes the organization to legal liability.

While you don’t want to interfere with someone’s love life, you have a key role in preventing any activities from interfering with the business, whether you are the HR person or a line manager.

Here are the basic danger areas:

1. Boss-subordinate relationships. Here, HR has the main monitoring responsibility.

Most companies still strongly limit or ban dating between bosses and subordinates, and for good reason:

  • If the relationship goes south, the supervisor will find it tough to take any disciplinary action, such as reprimands or termination, affecting the subordinate, no matter how justified the discipline might actually be. Almost any action can look like retaliation.
  • If the relationship goes well, other workers may look for signs the supervisor is playing favorites. One company was successfully sued by three women who said the boss gave better assignments to women he was dating.
  • A supervisor even asking any subordinate for a date can come back to haunt the organization. If the supervisor hints that it would be good for the employee’s career, it’ll look like quid pro quo sexual harassment. If the offer is crudely made or coarsely sexual, it may quickly turn into a hostile-workplace claim. The same is true if a “no” is not graciously accepted.

What can HR do if problems like these arise? At least couple of things: 1) Investigate and deal with any policy violations, and/or 2) Help “keep the peace” by, for example, handling a transfer of one of the parties so it’s not an adverse action.

2. Employee-employee relationships. Here, supervisors are the point people in watching out for trouble.

Most organizations are flexible when it comes to relationships where the power is about equal. After all, people are much less likely to feel coerced into such a relationship. These relationships usually only come to supervisors’ attention when there’s a problem, such as:

  • The relationship sours: The fallout can range from disruption of the workplace and lost productivity to more serious problems such as verbal, electronic and physical harassment. Supervisors should stay alert for warning signs of trouble — especially complaints or employees’ friends choosing sides) and take quick action. Have separate meetings with the parties to make it clear the company won’t tolerate disruptions. If the problem continues, get HR involved.
  • One party is too persistent: In today’s work environment, usually a person can politely ask a co-worker for a date – once – and take no for an answer. Repeated questions, glaring or any hint of retaliation response, can start the organization down the road to a hostile-workplace claim.

A final thought: Whatever policy you maintain on workplace dating, make sure it’s realistic. A “zero-tolerance” approach in this area ignores basic human drives and is bound to fail. At the same time, your policy needs to clearly outline specific actions — such as supervisors pressuring subordinates for dates — that are unacceptable and that will lead to disciplinary measures.

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