Valentine's Day is right around the corner. And with all that love in the air, some of it is bound to make its way into your workplace. If two of your employees are struck by Cupid's arrow, are you prepared to handle this very sensitive situation?
While a budding romance between two people is a beautiful thing, dating in the workplace comes with a host of problems. First, two dating employees can make coworkers uncomfortable. Using cutesy names, publically displaying their affection and telling private or personal stories can make other people feel uneasy—if not queasy.
However, often, the courtship and relationship stages aren't that public or problematic. It is the breakup that can tear a team to shreds. Employees who are bitter over breaking up could refuse to work together or, worse, cause a scene in front of coworkers and customers. Furthermore, as coworkers choose sides with one or the other, the conflict spreads to other employees and can become pretty toxic.
When the relationship is between a supervisor and an employee, the ramifications are serious. A supervisor can be accused by other employees of showing favoritism to the employee with whom he or she is involved. If the relationship sours, a jilted employee could claim sexual harassment to get back at the supervisor. If it is the employee who ends the relationship, he or she could claim unlawful retaliation against the supervisor for poor performance reviews or denied promotions and salary requests. All of these issues can open up a court battle, but even if it doesn't go that far, they generate gossip, hurt morale, stunt productivity and steal your time away from focusing on building the business.
So how do you handle dating in the workplace? Here's the thing: like two frisky teenagers, if two of your employees want to date, they will. If you ban it, they will hide it from you, but they'll still figure out a way to be together. After all, people spend a lot of time together at work; it makes sense that sparks are going to fly. So while you'll never stop employees from dating one another, you can take these actions to protect your business.
Ban dating altogether
If you insist on prohibiting employees from dating, create a policy that outlines all banned behaviors. However, understand that you can't enforce a work policy outside of work, so employees can follow the terms of your policy during the workday while still dating on their own time.
Furthermore, if you punish or fire someone for breaking your no-dating rules, they could sue you, claiming wrongful termination and/or breach of privacy. Bans on dating tend to be scare tactics that almost never work, and they could ultimately cause you to lose some valuable employees who refuse to abide by unfair rules.
Create a fraternization policy
While a total ban on dating likely won't do you any good, creating a fraternization policy is a great way to establish ground rules for employees and to protect you from legal woes. Essentially, your policy will clearly define what behavior between two employees is acceptable at work. That can cover everything from touching to how two people are expected to communicate.
Make everyone at the company confirm understanding and sign a copy of the policy. You may choose to include the fraternization policy in the Employee Handbook, which every worker must review and sign when they are onboarded as an employee. Should you have to reprimand or fire someone for inappropriate behavior or misconduct, you will have probable cause and documentation to back it up.
Be open with employees
Meet with current employees to discuss the policy, and make the discussion part of your orientation for new hires. Let them know why you have created a fraternization policy, but make it clear that you want to stay out of their personal lives but also expect them to keep their personal lives at home.
Example: "Trust me, I have no interest in your personal dating life, nor do I want to police who you can and cannot date. However, I'm running a business here, and I have to ensure that any drama related to romantic relationships stays out of this workplace. I've created this policy to prevent conflicts and ensure that no one feels embarrassed or uneasy about someone else's relationship. If we all remain professional, we won't have any problems."
Request full disclosure
Another way to mitigate risk is to ask employees to announce their relationship to you or the human resources department as soon as they are ready to go public with it. The terms of this may be laid out in the fraternization policy; any employees engaging in romantic relationships are required to notify their superiors and/or human resources. Being aware of romantic entanglements at the workplace gives the managers and HR team the ability to better evaluate the possible complications of each particular situation; it’ll also help them better prepare for any dangers surrounding conflicts of interest or sexual harassment.
You may choose to have the two employees sign an Employee Dating Acknowledgement and Wavier, often referred to as a "Love Contract," which states that the relationship is consensual and restates the guidelines outlined in the fraternization policy. Inform employees that they have a right to legal counsel before signing the contract and that their relationship will remain confidential according to their wishes.
Decide how to manage supervisor-employee dating
If you are the only manager within your business, you may not need to worry about it at all. However, if you have several supervisors on staff, you must decide if you want to treat the relationship differently than employee-employee relationships. Many companies prohibit dating between a manager and a subordinate because of the legal issues relating to conflicts of interest. However, remember that while you can be very specific about outlining what behavior you expect in the workplace, you won't be able to enforce the policy outside of work.
So while the circumstance is more stressful, often your best bet is to strongly advise your managers against dating employees, to make them sign the fraternization policy and "Love Contract" if they do, and to see how things go.
If you’re concerned about things going awry, you can also consider asking one of the employees to relocate to a different department or team so that the employee no longer reports directly to the supervisor. Just make sure one of them volunteers to do it. If you force someone to relocate, the two could feel like you are punishing them, and that could lead to resentment.
Just remember, when it comes to employee fraternization, things don’t always go according to plan. Your employees spend a lot of time together, and occasionally romance will develop. The best you can do is be aware of the law, have all employees sign a fraternization policy early on and respect their private lives insomuch as they maintain professionalism in the workplace.