Office Romance – Navigating the Risks this Valentine’s Day Season

Stephanie A. Kobal      Feb. 10, 2021

Co-workers sharing a paper heart for office romanceAs we begin year two of a global pandemic, most in-person activities remain severely restricted, and many employees continue to work remotely. Given these restrictions, employers may be lulled into a false sense of security that risks posed by office romance are no more. This, however, is not the case. Rather, it is predicted that the office romance may simply shift to the virtual office space.

With the season of love, hearts, roses, and chocolate treats upon us, employers will face the challenge of how to navigate the shifting dynamics of office romance. Regardless of where employees work, the combination of workplace hierarchies and matters of the heart can be complicated. Those complications include potential sexual harassment and discrimination claims, complaints of favoritism, and general issues related to employee morale.

Employers have taken a variety of positions with regard to the office romance. Some employers expressly prohibit any and all types of romantic relationships. Others only prohibit relationships with direct or indirect subordinates. Some employers discourage dating between employees, and require the employees to disclose the relationship to management. Finally, some employers ignore or do not directly address the issue at all.

Here are some tips to consider when addressing employees about office romance:

  • Focus on the most problematic issue or highest risk
  • Focus on facts related to the issue – do not jump to conclusions or use gossip as the basis for the discussion
  • Remind the employees involved of relevant company policies or expectations, if any
  • Remind the employees involved of the need to keep workplace interactions professional – employees should limit affectionate displays and romantic expressions while “at work”
  • Remind employees of their continued duty to promptly report any act or statement that they find offensive or harassing by their romantic partner and the company’s policy against any retaliation
  • Remind the employees that there is no right to privacy on employer-owned media (e.g., an employer’s email system, instant messaging or virtual meeting platform)
  • If there is a direct reporting relationship between the two employees, consider reassigning one or both employees to eliminate certain inherent power inequity issues associated with the manager/subordinate relationship

For assistance navigating the organizational heartache of the office romance, developing related policies, or any other employment law issue, please contact Jacob M. Sitman, Stephanie A. Koenig, or any other member of our Employment Law & Labor Relations Department.

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