Three potential hot messes:
In company Z, a senior manager considered his workplace a dating pool in which he fished. When he put the moves on a new female employee, the workplace grapevine ignited.
In company Y, the head of marketing had serial crushes on one after another of the male management trainees. Because she was attractive and personable, several of them developed crushes in return. One put the moves on her when they worked all weekend on a project.
In company X, the chief operating officer and chief financial officer had a not-so-secret affair. Although he hated to, the CEO called them into his office and said, “One of you needs to resign. Unless this happens, we’ll have no defense if we fire someone who sexually harasses an employee.” They challenged him, saying, “We’re peers. It’s consensual. There’s no harassment.”
Workplace romance has always existed; it flourished during the pandemic when managers and employees sought connection. According to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, one in three U.S. employees today currently dates a coworker. This represents a 6% increase from pre-pandemic days. One in two U.S. employees have had a crush on someone they worked with; 39% have been asked out by someone they worked with; and 35% have dated someone in their workplace. The survey reports that 23% of respondents have or have had someone they view as their “work spouse” and 45% of these felt romantically toward these spouses. The managers and supervisors surveyed stated that 21 percent of them have dated their subordinates.
Why workplace romance is on the rise
Remote and hybrid work lends itself to increased coworker romance. Zoom, Teams, Slack and other technology allow employees to view individuals they might not interact with if in the office and lend themselves to privately sent side conversations. These informal chats make it easy to subtly signal interest in a manner that might feel awkward if done in person. Once these conversations begin, they can deepen. Remote work also makes it easier for two individuals to keep their romances private.
Actions employers need to take
Given the risk sexual relationships pose to an employer, employers need to establish guardrails. This starts with an anti-harassment policy that makes it clear that sexual harassment and unwelcome, inappropriate sexually laden conduct during working hours will not be tolerated. In addition to the policy, employers need to provide annual training for managers and employees; to take harassment complaints seriously by promptly investigating them; and to take disciplinary action when appropriate.
Many current remote romances start and play out on company technology. Employers need to update older policies to address how managers and employees need to behave on company-owned videoconferencing and communication platforms. These updated policies can make it clear the employer expects managers and employees to conduct themselves professionally during working hours and when using company equipment.
In sexual harassment training, employers can remind their managers and supervisors of the liability they expose themselves and the company to if they engage in romantic relationships with subordinates. Some employers ban these relationships, and most employers prohibit managers or supervisors from making employment decisions affecting individuals with whom they’re sexually or romantically involved.
Employers may want to consider instituting love contracts. These written agreements ask that those involved in a romantic relationship acknowledge and agree to abide by the employee’s harassment policies and to maintain professional conduct while in the workplace or using company technology.
Company X’s COO and CFO make valid points. Peers can engage in consensual relationships; however, their CEO is correct that this high-level relationship may pose a challenge for the organization in handling future sexual harassment situations. Although crushes without accompanying actions don’t pose the risk actual conduct does, company Y’s marketing manager may find herself a target of a false allegation. To protect herself and her employer, she needs to rein in her feelings and find a new outlet for her crushes. Company Z’s senior manager has created a disaster waiting to happen for himself and his employer. His employer needs to investigate and act now.