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Another Post Pandemic To-Do for HR – Monitoring Office Romances as Employees Return to the Workplace

EverythingHR Staff | 05/03/2022 | Blog

Move over Match.com and make room for Zoom…

Apparently remote “work” is not all that was being done during all those remote meetings over the past two years.  Office romances somehow actually increased during the pandemic.  And, now that Spring is in the air and employees are making their way back into the office on a more consistent basis, HR has another fascinating employee relations issue to deal with now.

Please continue to our blog for a timely reminder of some of the important steps all employers must take to mitigate the risk of harassment and a hostile work environment as the workplace becomes more populated.

They’re Back! Office Romances May Be All the Rage After, Because of Pandemic

With employees returning to the physical office, employers are likely going to be dealing with a number of headaches they haven’t had to address during the COVID-19 outbreak. For instance, office romances may be an even bigger challenge for companies after the pandemic subsides because some coworkers got to know one another really well over Zoom calls and the like, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. In a January survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management, one-third of employees said they were (or have been) involved in a relationship with a coworker. The number was up from about one-fourth in 2020.

Potential Pitfalls

Although romantic relationships among coworkers is now fairly common, they can cause problems and lead to sexual harassment claims of both the quid pro quo (essentially, a sexual favor for a favor) and the hostile work environment variety. Claims for quid pro quo harassment often arise after a consensual relationship ends and one of the individuals continues to demand sex. Likewise, a party upset with the relationship ending may engage in inappropriate conduct that creates a hostile workplace.

Employees outside of the relationship also may be affected. We often see coworkers make claims for favoritism when a supervisor is in a relationship with a subordinate.

Policies are Key

Although antiharassment and similar equal employment opportunity (EEO) policies are common in the workplace, many employers haven’t implemented specific policies to cover workplace romance. You should mold the policy to fit your company’s specific needs. Generally speaking, every policy should prohibit a supervisor and subordinate from being in a romantic relationship. Some employers may want to further restrict any romantic relationships in the workplace.

The policy should require that romantic relationships be reported to HR, and it should make clear that any sort of favoritism is prohibited. It should also remind employees of the separate sexual harassment policy. Any sort of behavior akin to harassment should be strictly prohibited, and employees should be directed to report such conduct to HR.

As with any policy, the romance-in-the-workplace policy needs to apply to all employees, and written copies need to be disseminated to all employees. Receipt of the policy should be acknowledged in writing by the employees.

Love Contract

It might sound funny, but one way you can mitigate risks is to use a “love contract” when coworkers are in a relationship. Such a contract is a signed agreement where both employees acknowledge the relationship is consensual and doesn’t constitute a form of sexual harassment. The agreement usually sets out expectations in terms of how the employees will behave toward each other in the workplace. It should also provide a procedure for reporting any problems that might arise.

Love contracts, of course, aren’t foolproof. Discussing and drafting a love contract might be awkward, but that’s to be expected when office romance is in the air.

Don’t Forget Sexual Harassment, other EEO Training

With employees working away from the office, it has been harder for employers to conduct regular training sessions. Plus, with so much of HR’s time being consumed with the pandemic response, there has surely been a decrease in the amount of EEO training happening in the workplace. Now is the time to rectify that issue.

You should conduct annual EEO training and include the topic of sexual harassment. Regular training can actually serve as a defense to a sexual harassment claim in many states. When you conduct the training, make sure you have the employees sign an acknowledgement that confirms attendance.

Article courtesy of content partner BLR.  Author Joseph U. Leonoro is an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC in Charleston, West Virginia.