What to do when Cupid strikes

by 14 Feb 2012

While there’s no way (and perhaps no reason) to try and prevent workplace romances, office liaisons can be tricky and awkward to manage – looking at them from a decidedly unromantic perspective may be the way to go.

Written policy?

Mark Kluger, a US based labor and employment practice consultant, said it’s important not to establish a policy prohibiting office relationships, and also not to ignore gossip that it exists.

“Employers cannot control human nature, so a workplace romance policy is unenforceable. And if you establish one, it sends a negative message to employees about your company's willingness to impose itself into their personal lives,” Kluger said.

He said that trying to police love at work means you may end up creating a Romeo and Juliet situation, where people will feel they need to lie and sneak around.

What’s the best reaction by an employer?

Kluger said that if a workplace relationship develops between a supervisor and a subordinate, there's a definite need for the employer to step in and speak to both parties about conflicts of interest. However, when co-workers start a relationship, the employer should really only have a word if it’s affecting productivity and proving to be a distraction. Some issues that may arise include public displays of affection or the couple spending unreasonable amounts of work time together.

It’s important to have some ground rules. If there is open sexual banter there may be legitimate complaints from colleagues about sexual harassment.

What happens if feelings aren’t reciprocated?

Difficulties may arise if the attraction between employees is not mutual, not only for the individuals concerned, but ultimately for the employer who could potentially be liable if harassment occurs in the workplace.

According to employment law firm DLA Piper, to ensure all reasonable steps have been taken employers must at a minimum:

  1. Develop a policy clearly defining the behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment

  2. Implement a complaints procedure that is simple, effective and does not intimidate

  3. Ensure the policies and procedures are communicated to staff and supported with regular training

  4. Enforce a strong culture of 'lead by example' when it comes to the management of complaints and the treatment of complainants

  5. Remain alert to possible incidences of sexual harassment and act quickly, even if this occurs outside of work hours or away from the workplace

What is the best course of action to take?

Kluger said it’s important not to blow the situation out of proportion. “If you start sounding punitive right away, things can deteriorate quickly. Then you've got resentment, anger, and bad morale extending to the entire workplace,” he said.

Kluger advised that most problems can be easily diffused with effective communication. Having a meeting with the couple where workplace boundaries are explained can be an effective measure.

And if the problem isn't resolved?

Well, that's certainly a legitimate reason for the employer to shift people to a different department or building. This can be a problem for smaller employers, because there are typically fewer places to move people. However, Kluger advised that coming up with a plan suitable for all parties, where everyone agrees, is the best route to take.


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