In the award-winning American TV series The Office, a small Pennsylvania workplace is rife with romantic relationships that would horrify any actual HR department. Despite its overdramatized relationships, the comedy sitcom isn’t too off base regarding the real-life ubiquitousness of in-office romantic relationships. One-third of adults in the U.S. are or have been in a workplace romance, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). This can, unfortunately, create a minefield of problems for all involved, especially considering 5 percent of office romances end in litigation, as well as reports of intimidation and favoritism.
Let’s consider the consequences.
Office relationships often cross superiority levels. In a CareerBuilder survey, 35 percent of female respondents and 25 percent of male respondents said they’ve dated someone at a higher professional level than themselves; 27 percent of women and 16 percent of men have dated their boss.
Office relationships also threaten to diminish office morale and employee satisfaction—not mention they might lead to one or both partners in the relationship leaving the company.
So, how can a company avoid the possible negative ramifications of workplace romances?
Generally, zero-tolerance policies are considered to be unrealistic, unnecessarily stringent and ineffective. In fact, they tend to encourage employees to keep their relationship a secret, which is the opposite of what HR departments should want.
To maintain a smoothly operating office, companies can require employees to disclose in-office romantic relationships, something The Office’s fictional company Dunder Mifflin got right. In those policies, be specific about dos and don’ts. For the approved office romances, remind employees that professional behavior is always required in the office and at company off-site meetings and events, and those relationship problems should be left at home.
Disclosure may be difficult to enforce, but HR should welcome it by creating a no-judgment zone. It’s widely understood that keeping one’s work and personal lives separate is a wise practice. Phrases like “Don’t mix business with pleasure” and “Leave your baggage at the door” are common when it comes to professionalism. So, employees may be wary of admitting in-office relationships to HR for fear that it will negatively impact their careers, as one in three romantic office relationships will end in at least one person being fired. Twenty-eight percent of employees who have had a workplace romance never disclosed it to HR, according to SHRM.
To encourage disclosing in-office relationships, company policies should clearly state that disclosure will not affect employees’ career trajectory or reputation. HR teams should stress that disclosing a workplace relationship does not mean employees have to admit their relationship to their coworkers—which may help to alleviate their fear of office rumors and gossip.
Companies often focus on recruiting top talent and analyzing the productivity and performance of their staff. But they also must understand that their employees are, in fact, human. Workplace romances are fairly common and should be expected. By enforcing strong but empathetic HR policies, companies can ensure their staff feels respected should they meet someone in the office and protected if they are mistreated by a superior or colleague.