Given how much time people spend at work, it comes as no surprise that many people date or have dated someone at their workplace. But with a lot of hooking up, there is also a lot of breaking up. In this episode of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank and employment law expert Jennifer Shaw discuss workplace dating, and what employers should and shouldn’t do if employees begin romantic relationships in the workplace.
Three Workplace Dating Reminders for Employers
Shaw outlines three workplace dating reminders for employers:
First, California is unique because its constitution includes the right to freedom of association. For workplace dating this means, “[Employers] cannot outright ban people from dating in the workplace even if they are managers or supervisors. There has to be an actual or potential conflict of interest,” Shaw explains.
Second, employers cannot regulate the personal relationships of their nonmanagement employees. Instead, employers should focus on regulating conduct. While there may be no conflict of interest in a relationship between two nonsupervisors, other issues may arise, Shaw adds.
Third, when people start a romantic relationship, they often are not thinking clearly, she says. Brain scans of people who are in new romantic relationships look different than those of people who are not. Their focus is on that person, whether they are waiting for the next message or thinking about the plans they have later; all these things affect the workplace.
Policies and Handling Workplace Dating
What is of key importance for employers is deciding what the company’s policy is going to be on workplace dating. Shaw recommends clearly stating in the policy, “If you fall in love with someone at work, if you’re interested in pursuing a [workplace] relationship…just let HR know.”
She reminds listeners that this isn’t an opportunity to judge, but rather it’s an opportunity to accommodate the relationship.
When employers do find out that there might be a workplace relationship, Frank asks, how can employers manage this?
First, Shaw explains, someone in HR needs to talk to the two individuals separately, asking questions like, “Is this relationship consensual?” Power dynamics may be at play, even among relationships between seemingly equal coworkers.
Second, employers should evaluate if the employees work together. Employers should step back and ask, what is the employees’ working relationship? And might there be some changes that should be made? For example, should the employees report to different managers?
A love contract is when employers get employees to document their relationship, Shaw says. Many contracts were very stereotypical; the contract would be between a male executive and a female subordinate, and it was the subordinate who had to sign the love contract.
These love contracts are worth nothing, Shaw tells Frank. Additionally, the contract provides no defense to the employer.
All that employee has to say, Shaw and Frank note, is “I signed it because I felt pressured…I was coerced, he was my boss.”
Valentine’s Day at the Office
Employers need to realize that some people don’t like Valentine’s Day, so there shouldn’t be an office Valentine’s Day party or people giving out Valentines, Shaw says. If you are going to give a present, do it for everyone, but the better approach is to not do anything at all.
The best practice for employers on Valentine’s Day is to not celebrate it, Frank says. However, people are going to be who they are, so this goes back to the idea of anticipation, Shaw adds. Anticipate what might go wrong, so you can plan for it.