Sweet or Sour? The Problem with Office Valentines

Although Valentine’s Day usually brings pleasant thoughts of chocolates and other sweets, the thought of romance at work can leave a bitter taste for employers.

In Vault.com’s 2016 Office Romance Survey, half of those surveyed said they participated in an office romance at some point in their careers. While many felt that some rules should apply to office romances (such as no romances between employees at different levels), only six percent of respondents believed that workplace romances are never OK.

But office romances can be a minefield for employers.

Of course, an employer has valid concerns about liability related to workplace romances. Relationships between employees and supervisors are particularly problematic. Employers are strictly liable for a supervisor’s sexual harassment of a subordinate. Strict liability means that the employer has absolute legal responsibility for any harm — the employer does not have to be found careless or negligent.

According to the survey, 23 percent of those who have had a romance at work have dated a subordinate, and 16 percent have dated a supervisor. But even if it appears that the two little lovebirds are a happy couple, a relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate may not truly be consensual or “welcome” given the power dynamic involved.

Besides the liability issue, flirting and other romantic behaviors at work distract the parties involved in the relationship and the co-workers around them, leading to decreased productivity and morale.

You even need to be aware if the co-workers are using time at work for their office tryst. According to the survey, 32 percent of office romances involved some sort of at-work liaison – with five percent getting caught in the act!

The entire department may be affected by the relationship. Almost one-third of survey respondents felt that a co-worker gained a professional advantage because of a romantic work relationship. Over one-quarter felt uncomfortable with a colleague’s workplace romance.

Also, personal problems, fights, gossip and rumors that result from the office romance can be disruptive and affect the reputation of the company and the parties involved.

Office “sweethearts” can quickly go from sweet to sour. If the couple breaks up, the working environment might be impacted – such as the ability for the exes to collaborate with each other or unproductive time spent dealing with personal fallout. Or, as has happened, one of the parties might keep pursuing the other — turning what was once welcome conduct into an unwelcome hostile work environment.

Regret for the office romance, however, may break down on gender lines according to the survey: 71 percent of men would do it again, while 43 percent of women would not.

Preventing Problems

California employers know they have a duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Steps employers need to take include:

  • Have an effective anti-harassment policy.
  • Provide mandatory sexual harassment prevention training to supervisors, such as CalChamber’s online, interactive 2-Hour California Harassment Prevention Training, every two years based on the tracking method(s) the company chooses. This is a requirement for California companies with 50 or more employees.
  • Take all complaints seriously and never retaliate against an employee who complains of workplace harassment.

CalChamber members can read more about Considering Personal Relationships and Off Duty Conduct in the HR Library. Not a member? Learn about the benefits of membership.

Staff Contact: Gail Cecchettini Whaley