Navigating Office Romance in the Post #MeToo Era

For as long as there have been offices, there have been office romances. It’s simply human nature. Coworkers spend many hours together and get to know each other’s personalities, interests, working style, and how they operate under stress. In theory, it’s a far better place to meet someone than a noisy barroom. But there have always been inherent problems with office romances. While the sexual harassment and abuses exposed by #MeToo have nothing to do with romance, the campaign has made most of us hyperaware of potential gray areas in office policies and workplace behavior.

One key to avoiding these problems is setting clear policies and making sure everyone knows them, says Pittsburgh-based human resources expert Mark Marsen. The other key is ensuring that employees are respectful and responsible — and this is much harder to control.

Before taking his current post at a not-for-profit agency, Marsen ran his own light manufacturing company. Over the span of 10 years, many of his employees dated each other. “There was a lot of coupling going on. I’m happy to report it was all handled maturely and appropriately, but there was a lot of serial monogamy.” One production manager wound up dating three coworkers in quick succession. “That could have turned out very badly,” Marsen says. A combination of clear policy, positive culture, and good luck helped his company avoid problems from these romances.

Human resources as a field has always been very mindful of interpersonal relationships in the workplace, he says. Office romances — like disputes — can hurt productivity and even lead to lawsuits. Going forward in the #MeToo era, managers will likely be quicker to report problems and company owners will be more likely to ensure preventive actions are taken.

“If there is any type of behavior that can be misconstrued, I would hope a good HR manager would take action immediately,” Marsen says. “Managers will either engage in discussions with those employees or will engage in discussions with human resources.”

A Common Occurrence

Almost a quarter of all employees polled by the Alexandria, Virginia–based Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) said they have been or are currently engaged in a work romance. And 43 percent of HR managers said they were aware of such relationships at their companies. The number of companies creating formal policies around workplace romance is on the rise. In 2005 just 20 percent of organizations polled had such policies in place. That number had more than doubled by 2013. We’re pretty sure any company without an office romance policy on the books in 2018 is scrambling to implement one. Here are a few more statistics from SHRM:

Among organizations that have workplace romance policies:

  • 99 percent barred supervisors from dating a direct report.
  • 45 percent barred romance between employees of significantly different rank.
  • 35 percent barred relationships between employees reporting to the same supervisor.

Employers were concerned about workplace romance due to:

  • real or perceived favoritism (84 percent).
  • potential for claims of sexual harassment (78 percent).
  • potential for retaliation (72 percent).

In 2017, Seattle-based Fierce Inc. surveyed 1,000 office workers and found:

  • 25 percent admitted to being currently being involved in an office romance.
  • of that 25 percent, top management made up the largest group, at 40 percent.
  • a whopping 40 percent overall were unsure about their offices’ rules on dating coworkers.

Another 2017 survey, from New York-based Vault Inc., revealed:

  • 57 percent of office workers had had a workplace romance in their career.
  • 10 percent had met their spouse or life partner at work.
  • 41 percent actively avoided any type of workplace romance.

Moving Forward

Today, the best thing a business owner can do is be both prepared and outspoken. It’s not enough to have HR policies in place. They have to be communicated to each employee in a way that sinks in, Marsen says. After all, sexual harassment policies had been in place for decades at most companies, but that did next to nothing to quell the sort of behavior #MeToo has exposed.

It’s a mistake to think office-place relationships — proper or improper — will go away, even now that we’re all aware of their potential problems.

“Employees are human and will engage in all activities that humans engage in, including the intimate ones, appropriately or not. The best [a business] can do is be very clear what behaviors are going to be acceptable when doing the work they are doing,” Marsen says. “You need to make sure there is a lot of clarity. There needs to be a much deeper understanding of what the expectation is beyond what is listed on paper.”

How does your organization handle office romance? Share your thoughts below!

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