Last week, the Internet was abuzz with the news that Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, who work together as judges on The Voice, have begun dating. Workplace relationships, though fraught with hazard for HR professionals, are incredibly common, with 80 percent of employees reporting that they have been involved in, or have heard of, coworkers dating at their place of business. Of course, employee hookups can be distracting to their coworkers and cause a lot of talk around the proverbial watercooler. More important to HR, the end of workplace relationships can result in sexual harassment claims if one party to the relationship decides to break things off while the jilted employee continues to express romantic feelings or lashes out in anger toward the ex.
To avoid this drama, some employers enact anti-fraternization policies to prevent employees from dating one another altogether, while others adopt dating policies to ensure that cubicle-crossed lovers leave the PDA at home and remain professional and productive at work. The large majority of employers, however, recognize and accept that their employees may want to date one another, and simply rely on their sexual harassment policies to govern the parameters of employee relationships.
Whatever strategy you choose to implement at your business, your chief concern as an HR professional should be whether the relationship between the employees is consensual. While blossoming love (or temporary lust) among coworkers may be a source of office gossip, there is generally little risk of legal liability as long as both parties consent to the conduct. Once the canoodling employees part ways, though, it’s likely that collateral damage from the breakup may spill over into work. Thus, once a company’s management or HR staff becomes aware of an employee dating relationship, it is incumbent upon them to take action if at any point it becomes apparent that one party has withdrawn from the relationship and now considers the other party’s overtures to be offensive, unwelcome, or harassing.
Fortunately for NBC, Gwen and Blake are peers, so there is no apparent disparity between their level of power and influence at work that would suggest impropriety (though their ex-spouses might beg to differ). In contrast, a romance between a supervisor and a lower-level employee is more troublesome because of the obvious conflict of interest and the potential to hurt morale and alienate employees who are not shtupping the boss. Further, if and when the relationship goes south, the employee may accuse the supervisor of unfairly pressuring the employee into the relationship in the first place, or retaliating against the employee for ending the relationship. As a result, in many organizations, the ethical and legal dangers posed by supervisor/subordinate dating may not be worth the risk.
While you may not be able to keep your employees’ hormones in check, there are steps you can take to protect your business from liability and keep the drama to a minimum:
1) Distribute your business’s harassment policy to all employees and regularly train them about what constitutes unlawful harassment and how to report the conduct;
2) Train managers and supervisors on how to manage a workplace romance; and
3) Consider adopting a policy that prohibits supervisors from dating a direct report.
It’s a fact of life that office romances are as ubiquitous as divorce lawyers in Hollywood, but if you follow these steps, your business will be ready when cupid’s arrow sets aim at your employees.