It’s Valentine’s Day, and some of your employees are celebrating together (wink, wink). Probably.
If you’ve watched a lot of The Office (the American version), it’s easy to fall under the impression that most people find love at work. In the real world, however, there aren’t nearly as many Jim and Pam-like relationships as you might hope, and workplace romances often become very messy. This is probably why so many demonize workplace relationships.
Workplace romances will happen regardless of what HR does, but there are things you can do to alleviate the challenges that come with workplace romances. Here are eight facts about workplace romances you probably need to know now, because love doesn’t wait for HR to get its ducks in a row—especially on Valentine’s Day.
1. Employees are open to workplace romances. 27 percent of employees say they are open to engaging in romantic relationships with coworkers. I know you’re good at math, but it’s worth saying out loud: that’s one in four employees! And you know what they say about where there’s a will, there’s a way.
2. Workplace romances happen more than you may think. You know that stat I just gave about how so many employees are open to workplace relationships? The real number is probably much higher. Just consider this: 22 percent of US married couples in the U.S. met at work. That means there’s either an incredibly high conversion rate among those employees who say they’re open to romances or—more likely—a whole lot of employees are more open to office romance than they think (or will admit to).
3. The rules for workplace romances must be written down. It’s imperative to have policies in writing—probably somewhere near rules on sexual harassment. Not only will a proactive approach help your organization avoid a number of pitfalls, but it will also help avoid any awkward circumstances that may arise. For example, established rules about public displays of affection (PDA) won’t just prevent employees from snogging in the break room, they’ll also prevent the perception that you made the rule in response to a specific incident of PDA.
4. Workplace romances will happen regardless of the rules. No matter how strict your (written) rules are, romances will happen. Whether you decide to discourage workplace romances or not (totally your call), forbidding them altogether will not prevent them from happening; it’ll just force employees to break the rules and keep their relationships private. You’ll be much better off to accept that they will happen and encourage employees to discuss workplace relationships with HR reps and supervisors—especially when the relationships become serious.
The more open and candid employees can be with those in authority, the easier it’ll be to avoid any serious problems. For example, when Bamboo employees disclose their relationships to our HR department, our reps make sure to explain that the couple will be treated as individuals and that their partner’s actions—and their relationship in general—will have no effect on their own work.
5. Managers and subordinates should not hook up. While we just said that forbidding romances is counterproductive, there is likely one exception. The vast majority—nearly all—of companies have strict rules against relationships between supervisors and direct reports. The obvious conflict of interest that comes from such relationships is a culture killer. But more importantly, these relationships can easily lead to lawsuits for the manager and their employers.
For the subordinates, these relationships are often a lose-lose situation. When they receive rewards and recognition—whether they are deserved or not—other employees will resent them (40 percent of employees complain about favoritism among coworkers in romantic relationships). And if the couple breaks up, it’ll be almost impossible for the subordinate to stick around.
6. Workplace romances can get very messy. Gossip, resentment, ugly breakups: the list of ways a workplace romance can get messy goes on and on. And some of those ways can be downright catastrophic. Consider how easily workplace romances turned sour can become sexual harassment lawsuits; it only takes one foolish action from a spurned lover for a seemingly innocent situation to require your company attorneys. Or consider that one in six workplace relationships involves an affair where at least one of the people involved is married or in a relationship with a “significant other,” adding a whole new slew of negative effects and hurt feelings.
All of this messiness might make the relationships more fun for thrill-seekers, but HR cannot afford to be naive to the consequences. This is another reason why it helps to be proactive when it comes to workplace romances; make sure your people know what they are in for before they start getting cozy with their colleagues.
7. Women are affected more than men. According to research, women in romantic workplace relationships have to deal with negative perceptions more than men, in part because people assume—unfairly, we might add—that women leverage sex to advance their careers, while men are merely seeking companionship. This double standard means women are more likely to be victims of gossip. And gossip isn’t only a source of hurt feelings; it’s also an easy route to lost productivity, reputation damage, and eventual lawsuits. Not to mention the damage it inflicts on your culture.
8. “Love contracts” aren’t cure-alls. Love contracts—where both parties in a romantic relationship state to their employers that their relationship is voluntary and consensual, and that they know the employer’s sexual harassment policies—may help, but according to most HR professionals (75 percent), they don’t. This doesn’t mean that love contracts are bad. More likely, it means HR cannot rely on them to prevent workplace romances from becoming problems.
The best way to avoid romantic drama in the workplace is to set specific guidelines and clearly communicate them to your employees—before those relationships begin, at the onset of the relationships, and at any other necessary points in time. If yours is a culture of open communication, you’ll be able to talk about, and walk around, the many landmines that come with workplace romances.