Workplace relationships are complicated. Here's what HR pros should consider when employees get involved

When there’s love in the air, HR might need to crack a window
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NBC Universal / The Office

· 5 min read

In January, Jeff Zucker resigned as president of CNN after an internal investigation into the conduct of fired former anchor Chris Cuomo found Zucker had violated company policy by failing to disclose a “consensual” romantic relationship with another senior executive at CNN, renewing debate about the role of HR in employees’ private lives.

According to new research from SHRM, Zucker is far from alone in engaging in a workplace romance. SHRM asked a nationally representative sample of 550 US workers about their office dating behavior and found that:

  • 35% of workers surveyed said they have been on a date with someone from their workplace, and a third are currently involved in—or have been involved in—a workplace relationship.
  • These workers aren’t usually sidling up to an HR rep to dish the deets—over three-quarters of employees who have been involved in workplace relationships say their employers don’t require disclosure; and the same percentage of workers who have been in a workplace romance said they chose not to disclose it to their employer.

Some experts, including Andrew Challenger, SVP, head of sales and media at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a consulting firm that studies workplace policy, believe that HR should tighten up policies around workplace dating. Challenger said in a statement that HR doesn’t do itself any favors by waiting until relationships sour to get involved.

“At that point, HR is left with limited options, most of which are unsatisfactory not only for the employee, but also for the company,” Challenger said.

Creating a proactive policy, like the one Challenger envisions, could be easier said than done. Workplace-relationship experts and employment attorneys agree: It is difficult to create a policy that fits the modern realities of workplace dating.

Love rules. Sean Horan, a professor of communication at Fairfield University, has spent the past 10 years collecting qualitative and quantitative data about workplace relationships. He said that he is wary of requiring employees to disclose their workplace romantic relationships.

For starters, Horan said, workers may not be sure they’re even in a workplace romance.

“There’s a disconnect between how [HR] policies are written and the way relationships come together,” Horan explained. “In early stages of courtship, it’s ambiguous. Say we go to the movies or for dinner. Are we friends, or are we dating? I do those things with friends, too. Do I tell HR about my friend with benefits? If we’re just having sex, does HR need to know that? People don’t label those relationships.”

Another problem, according to Horan, is that employees may not know the policies and procedures that govern dating. Horan attributed some of this confusion to how policies are communicated. He said most employees learn about romantic policies just once—at orientation. At that point, Horan said, workers are unlikely to pay close attention because they rarely foresee the policy applying to them.

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“No one goes into a job saying, ‘Great, time to date!’” Horan said. “We don’t start jobs looking for relationships. Relationships tend to find us.”

Hope for Jim and Pam...plan for Bridget Jones. Although the majority of SHRM survey respondents who said that they are (or have been) in workplace relationships reported dating their peers (65%), some are, or were, dating subordinates (12%) or supervisors (19%).

Employment attorney Amy L. Bess, chair of Vedder Price’s labor and employment division, told Forbes that the relationships HR should be most worried about are the ones between supervisors and direct reports. She advocates prohibiting relationships with inherent imbalances of power. However, she said it would be “impossible to enforce” a policy that outlawed relationships among peers.

“You’d become the relationship police, poking around in people’s business…The real concern is where it can have a negative impact [on an employee’s career], where a supervisor can really affect the terms and conditions of someone’s employment,” Bess told Forbes.

To decrease the potential for abusive behavior, and to shield the company from legal risk, some organizations have anti-fraternization policies that prohibit supervisors and direct reports from entering into romantic relationships. Other companies favor the seemingly most uncomfortable policy of all time,  “love contracts,” in which both parties sign a document explicitly acknowledging that their relationship is consensual (and what to do if it ceases to be consensual), agreeing to an office code of conduct, and indicating their awareness of the employer’s sexual harassment and ethics policies.

There’s no “You didn’t take the garbage out this morning” in T-E-A-M

Horan reminded HR Brew that most relationships end in a break up.

“It’s always awkward seeing your ex,” Horan said, laughing. “Now imagine seeing them at work every day.”

If romantic partners work together directly, Horan said, there needs to be a plan to handle personal disputes or a split. Horan said that breakups can be “awkward and tense” for everyone involved—he recounted one example of an employee screaming at their former partner “in the middle of the office.”

Some employers can offer the ex-lovers mediation, individual counseling, or a little distance in the form of a temporary or permanent reassignment.—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SusannaVogel1 on Twitter. For confidential conversations, ask Susanna for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.