Cultural attitudes toward workplace romances are shifting. According to a 2010 survey conducted by Vault.com, a company for career intelligence, 60% of workers have participated in an office romance. More than 30% have even admitted to having a "romantic liaison" while on company property.
Times are changing, and as companies reach out to hire young college graduates, employers should be aware of the potential risks. A recent Workplace Options survey found that 84% of workers ages 18-29 say that they would have a romantic relationship with a coworker, compared to 36% of workers ages 30-46 and 29% of Boomers ages 47 to 66. In addition, 40% of young workers wouldn't have a problem dating their supervisor, compared to only 10% of their counterparts in older age brackets.
The Fine Line of Harassment
State and federal anti-harassment laws are in place to require that employers take all reasonable actions to prevent unlawful harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment is a prime concern and can come in various different forms of conduct – visual, verbal and physical.
The possible claims that can arise from an office romance are virtually endless. A subordinate employee may claim that he or she consented to a sexual relationship because he or she was threatened with a demotion or pay cut. Third parties may take note of the relationship and challenge any preferential treatment that the superior is displaying. Most commonly, after a breakup the two parties may clash and either harass one another while at work, or fabricate workplace sexual harassment for retaliation.
(To learn more about these types of legal issues, see our section on Discrimination and Harassment Laws.)
Conflict of Interest
We spend nearly a third of our adult lives at work, making workplace relationships nearly unavoidable. Sometimes at the onset of a romance feelings can cloud judgement and employees may fail to see the conflict of interest at hand and the distractions the relationship will bring forward. When a workplace relationship does arise, the relationship should never be between the boss and subordinate, among coworkers who work directly together or between an employee and a vendor. Employees who embark on a relationship together should be aware of issues that may arise including favoritism, discrimination and the chance of a hostile work environment.
The Issue of Liability: How to Protect Yourself as an Employer
Companies are steering away from addressing office romance in their employee policies due to legal wording issues; by law, finding loopholes that allow an employer to dictate who their employees may or may not have a romantic relationship with can be trying and usually land in some sort of gray area.
Instead of "anti-fraternization" or "no-dating" policies, regulations that prohibit and enforce sexual harassment and discrimination are encouraged. This way, if an office romance does lead to harassment the employer will be able to take action.
Written disclosure, commonly referred to as a "Love Contract," is a document that employees must sign to confirm a consensual relationship and prohibit certain behaviors like public displays of affection, or at-work retaliation when a relationship ends.