Relationships can and do happen in the workplace. It’s not surprising, given working adults spend much of their lives at work. A study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that one in three workers have been involved in a relationship with a co-worker before. Of those who had never been in a workplace relationship before, 20 percent had chosen to abstain because they were apprehensive about the potential for sexual harassment claims. Interestingly, only 2 percent of all the employees polled by SHRM admitted to currently being involved with a colleague — maybe because they feared being discovered by others.
With increased awareness of inappropriate behavior and more cases of sexual harassment making the news each week, these office romances seem to be slowing down some due to worries over being misinterpreted. The rejected advances of a co-worker can go dangerously wrong, leading to claims of sexual harassment, stalking, and even violence.
It’s prudent for every employer to create a clear written policy on what the company expects from employees who decide to pursue a workplace relationship, and the risks associated with doing so. All employees should be trained at least once a year on sexual harassment in order to ensure all understand how serious this matter is. The company should also update the sexual harassment policy to include casual co-worker dating and other office relationships, with guidelines for seeking help if something negative impacts an employee’s work life.
What belongs in a sexual harassment / workplace dating policy?
From an employer standpoint, the purpose of the sexual harassment policy is to educate and enforce the company’s position on avoiding unprofessional behaviors. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex or gender orientation that are offensive and so frequent/severe as to create a hostile work environment or results in an adverse employment decision”.
Here’s an example scenario: A female supervisor starts dating a male co-worker on her team, but he breaks things off with her in a few weeks. She begins referring to him as a “dog” to others, and shares his lack of performance in the bedroom as the reason for the breakup. This is humiliating to the male co-worker, and the relentless verbal abuse from his supervisor and colleagues causes him to become stressed out and unable to complete work tasks. He can’t even attend meetings where she is present. Where does he turn, because after all, he did willingly engage in a relationship with his boss for a brief period of time?
In this case, the male employee has every right to file a sexual harassment claim against his supervisor. While he may have actively dated the woman, he did not ask to be harrassed and degraded by her after the fact. Even his co-workers are in on it now. His best choice is to talk with someone in HR.
Every workplace policy on sexual harassment should include a clause on dating rules.
Here are some guidelines:
- If an employee is interested in a co-worker, he or she must respectfully talk to the other person and accept that they may or may not be interested. Move on and consider dating people outside the organization.
- If the other person is dating, married, or in a stable relationship it is probably best to avoid flirting with them or getting involved with them romantically.
- If two co-workers become romantically entwined, they should refrain from all forms of intimacy and affectionate behaviors while on company time and property. This only serves as a distraction from being productive and can also offend other co-workers.
- If co-workers become involved and then decide to end the relationship, they must do so in a respectful and mature manner that does not negatively impact their jobs or work tasks.
- Employees who are approached by customers or vendors, requesting dates, behaving in sexually advanced or offensive ways are to report this to HR, whether it is welcomed or not.
- Supervisors who demonstrate favoritism or offer promotions due to being in a relationship with a subordinate are a no-no.
- Consensual co-worker relationships should be reported to management, including if the parties end the relationship.
Enforcing the company dating policy
In some cases, employers have set very strict rules about dating and having serious relationships in the workplace. Some have outright banned any kind of office relationships. According to legal expert Ki Akhbari at Legalmatch, it can be difficult to enforce anti-fraternization policies because people are entitled to their own personal freedoms. He recommends that HR carefully document and manage these types of situations with a policy whereby, “the employees dating are required to disclose the relationship to the employer.” This can happen in the first 3 months. Lastly, Akhbari advises that, “employees be required to sign a document stating that the relationship is consensual and that both employees understand the sex discrimination and harassment policy of the employer.” This can protect the organization should things go wrong — putting accountability on the employees involved.
A sexual harassment and dating policy needs to also take into account the many ways that people express their feelings and communicate with each other. For example, text messaging can be construed as flirting with another co-worker if taken out of context. People sharing their new relationship status on social networks like Facebook can be a source of emotional upset should one party not agree.
In any case, whatever your organization decides is a good dating policy, employees should always be trained on sexual harassment topics in order to make them aware of their own behaviors. This can help to deter an employee from pursuing a relationship with a coworker, which has the potential for trouble.