workplace romanceIt happens all the time. Co-workers get attracted to each other and next thing you know…. Workplace romances can impact the productivity and morale of the protagonists and their co-workers. That impact is greater still when a supervisor and subordinate are involved.

It happens all the time. Co-workers get attracted to each other and next thing you know…. Workplace romances can impact the productivity and morale of the protagonists and their co-workers. That impact is greater still when a supervisor and subordinate are involved.

Some managers throw up their hands, saying they can’t keep people from falling in love and what they do on their off-work hours is their own affair. True enough, but you can hold people accountable for their behaviour at work. In fact, if you don’t, you could be letting your business in for a host of troubles.

It’s management’s responsibility to set standards for appropriate behaviour and impose consequences for failure to meet them. For example, in your policy handbook you could include language such as the following:

“If you have a special relationship with a co-worker, e.g. marriage, dating or domestic partnership, you are both expected to behave professionally at all times when you are together on company premises. This includes refraining from public displays of sexual affection, sexual innuendo, suggestive comments and sexually-oriented joking.”

A policy doesn’t eliminate the need for one-to-one counselling because some people just don’t get the difference between a quick hug in passing versus a prolonged embrace. However, a policy helps you deal equitably with different situations, and if the inappropriate behaviour continues, it provides the basis for disciplinary action.

But if a supervisor starts dating an employee in her/his department, you’ve got a bigger problem – the risk of appearance of favouritism. Every pay raise, promotion and performance evaluation becomes an occasion for suspicion and resentment.

Also, if the relationship ends and the supervisor later takes disciplinary action with that employee for any reason, the employee could claim the motive was retaliation. There have been cases in which an employee appeared to willingly date her supervisor but later filed a successful claim of sexual harassment saying that she acted out of fear of her supervisor’s threats.

The simplest, clearest solution is a policy stipulating that if supervisors and subordinates form an intimate relationship, one or the other must transfer to a position where one doesn’t supervise the other (assuming there is an opening) or quit. Small companies in this situation have tried various work-arounds. For example, in one store where the wife of the general manager runs the wellness department, she reports to the grocery manager instead of her husband.

In addition, as part of your harassment policy, be sure to let employees know they have the right to say no to dating requests, and give them a channel to report unwelcome pressure from co-workers and supervisors.

Although you can’t predict or control how people behave, having policies in place will help you hold them accountable if and when they fall in love. If you don’t have policies on appropriate workplace behaviour, harassment and supervisor/subordinate relationships, the time to write them is now. •

Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to specific factual situations.

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