The HR One Guide to Managing Office Romances

What's a supervisor supposed to do?


According to the 2018 Office Romance Survey, 52% of respondents admitted to having some kind of romantic relationship with a co-worker. Now, this may or may not be surprising information depending on which half of the population you fall into, but it’s critical for business owners and supervisors to understand how prevalent these relationships are, particularly in a time of heightened sensitivity.

The ongoing fallout from high profile cases of workplace harassment and sexual assault has many people on their toes, and business owners and leaders are trying to protect their employees and their organization from the inappropriate to the illegal, but wondering what steps to take first. One of the most important actions that a company can take is to establish clear and consistent policies and procedures that define and prohibit harassment and establish a process to investigate claims of harassment if they arise.

In fact, this is one reason why New York became one of the first states to pass a comprehensive law on preventing and reporting sexual harassment in the work place. HR One can help an organization develop and implement these kinds of policies, and can work to train managers and supervisors on how to handle a sexual harassment allegation.

But what about consensual office relationships? Don’t they also pose a challenge to employers?

Yes, they can, and organizations and their leaders need to walk a fine line between discouraging inappropriate behavior and prohibiting legitimate consensual relationships. One way to establish where the appropriate line should be drawn is to consider the business reason for any policy or procedure the organization wants to implement. For instance, is there a business reason to outright prohibit dating between employees? It’s hard to come up with a reason other than “it might put the organization in an uncomfortable position as some point.” That’s pretty vague, and the result may only be that you drive employees to take steps to hide a relationship, which can actually compound the number of problems it may present. 

So when should a manager say something?

If a manager hears a rumor that two employees are dating or in a relationship there’s often no need to acknowledge the situation unless or until it causes a work related issue.

For example, if Romeo is leaving his workstation every ten minutes to visit Juliet’s desk, and productivity is suffering, then Romeo’s manager should say something. His relationship with Juliet is incidental, (just as if he were leaving his station every ten minutes for the vending machine and it were impacting his work), so it’s important that the manager make the discussion about his productivity rather than his relationship. While it may seem like splitting hairs, it’s important to make the distinction.

What if the relationship is between a manager and an employee they supervise?

This situation presents more of a challenge. In addition to wanting to make sure the supervisor isn’t taking advantage of a power imbalance and being coercive, the organization also has an interest in making sure that there isn’t a real or perceived conflict of interest, and that the employee doesn’t receive an unfair advantage in terms of the 3 P’s: promotions, privileges, and pay. The way that the company can manage this is to have a policy in place requiring the disclosure of the relationship, so that the organization can take proactive steps to determine whether a potential conflict of interest exists. Once a relationship between a supervisor and employee is disclosed, the company should take appropriate steps to mitigate whatever conflict may exist. This could include transferring management duties to another person within the company, having a second person review certain decisions, an alternative position within the organization, or even a voluntary resignation on the part of the supervisor.

What steps can we take today?

Establishing a specific policy and procedure for this issue will be different based on the culture and even the size of an organization. The first step though is to review existing polices. Do they provide enough guidance that a supervisor can be confident in managing the challenges of employee relationships? Are there areas that aren’t covered? Are there updates or changes that should be made?

If you have specific questions about policies in this area call the HR Helpline at 1(800) 457-8829 or complete and submit the form below!