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When Cupid Strikes: 3 Steps to Managing Office Love

Around Valentine’s Day, conversations about love and romance are everywhere – including the office. The holiday of love may be behind us, but workplace romance is not going anywhere. HR may not usually be viewed as a matchmaker, but they are hiring talented people who fit the values and cultures of the company. When building an organization, it is natural that your employees have many things in common with their coworkers around the office.

In a recent episode of HR Break Room, we talked with Sarah Green Carmichael, the executive editor at Harvard Business Review and co-host of The Women at Work podcast, about managing office love. Here are three key takeaways from our conversation.

1. Have a clear and simple dating policy that empowers employees

When designing a workplace dating policy, it is important to remember that employees are adults who do not need a needlessly complicated list of do’s and don’ts. Employees need a simple policy that provides clear, easy to follow rules. Have one policy for the entire company. Don’t implement an overwhelming number of different policies that are overly granular with “since you’re in this kind of relationship on this kind of team, you need these kinds of rules” policies.

2. Define different rules as they relate to co-workers, managers and clients

While it is important to have a policy that does not get complex, it is critical to lay out clearly the different natures and types of work relationships. As a general rule practiced by most organizations, it is critical that managers do not date their direct reports. It can be awkward for the manager, the direct report, and certainly, everyone else on the team. If a manager sincerely wants to date a direct report, they should consider moving to a different department. The relationships between managers and their direct reports is one area HR can draw a clear line.

There are other areas where the policy can be relaxed. Giving employees the agency to choose which co-workers or team members they can date is empowering and good for morale. For the employees, it is important they choose their partners wisely and set clear expectations in order to keep their work and personal lives healthy and separate. They should consider that no matter the relationship, employees go to work in order to work. However, as long as they stay professional, these potential issues should take care of themselves.

We are now in a world where more people are not only working with clients and vendors, but also contractors and independent gig economy-type workers. Make sure to define rules for those outside the organization in your policy. In the podcast, Carmichael recommended employees be required to tell their manager if they are involved with a client, contractor, vendor or anyone they are working with in a professional context. If an employee begins a relationship with an important client, it is worth considering reassigning the employee’s professional role with the client to another teammate.

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 3. Have specific lines distinguishing the difference between sexual harassment and romantic interests

In the policy, HR can and should help clarify what harassment is and is not. One way to ensure there is a clear difference between sexual harassment and romantic interests is to talk about them sequentially within the handbook. Make sure to list the company’s dating policy either immediately before or after the sexual harassment policy, leaving no room for ambiguity.

Sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment and often involves quid pro quo sort of favors like, “you do this for me and I’ll do that for you.” It can also lead to retaliation if there is ever a complaint of harassment. Sexual Harassment is a predatory behavior that targets individuals. This is clearly a different behavior than a romantic pass gone wrong. When writing your policy, you can even say “If this relationship goes south, both members of this former relationship are responsible for keeping things professional just as they would interact with any other coworker.” Draw a distinction between benign romance, which is a beautiful part of the human experience, and harassment, which is predatory behavior.