Managing Workplace Relationships in the #MeToo Era

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In the midst of the #MeToo era, many employers find themselves fretting about all of the what-ifs of workplace romance. For some of these employers, the knee-jerk response has been to adopt rigid policies that simply prohibit all workplace relationships.

Given the realities of workplace romance, is that really the best response?

How Prevalent Are Workplace Relationships?

Statistically speaking, workplaces are hotbeds of romance. According to the 2019 Vault Office Romance Survey, more than half of employees have engaged in a romantic relationship with a coworker. CareerBuilder’s 2018 Annual Valentine’s Day Survey found that one-third of people who have dated at work have had relationships with people who were higher up on the corporate ladder, and that 31 percent of people who started dating at work have ended up married.

Unfortunately, that last statistic means nearly two-thirds of workplace romances end in a breakup, which significantly raises the stakes for employers. For instance, if one party to the relationship was a supervisor, the subordinate party may report the relationship was not consensual but was quid pro quo sexual harassment. Similarly, the subordinate might report that the supervisor took adverse employment actions against them in retaliation for ending the relationship. Such reports can not only disrupt workplace dynamics, but they can also open employers up to potential legal liability.

What Are the Options for Managing Workplace Relationships?

Policies around workplace romances can take various forms. The most common are:

1. Blanket Prohibitions on All Office Romances

Such policies can be tempting, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, but they are often unsound in practice. For one, they are often difficult if not impossible to enforce and police evenly. Such polices also tend to promote secrecy around relationships that do arise, which could result in potential problems not coming to light until much later on down the line. Finally, prohibitions can drive employees to choose their relationships over their jobs, which can result in the loss of valued team members.

2. Prohibitions of Supervisor-Subordinate Relationships

A lot of employers choose to prohibit relationships between supervisors and their direct reports. The rationale behind such policies is to avoid the appearance of favoritism, avoid harassment claims if the relationship ends badly, and prevent employees from pursuing someone in their direct chain of command who is uninterested in a relationship.

3. Relationships Are Allowed But Must Be Disclosed

Some employers allow workplace romances, but they require employees to report any office relationships to HR. Such policies allow employers to document that relationships are consensual, and they give employers the opportunity to remind employees involved in workplace romances of relevant anti-harassment, anti-retaliation, and complaint policies.

Although disclosure does have its benefits above the other methods for managing workplace romances, employers should not see disclosure as an automatic fix for the practical concerns surrounding office relationships — like feelings of animosity, discomfort, or favoritism among coworkers. Such issues may still need to be navigated, especially if a relationship goes south.

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Responding to Problems Caused by Workplace Romances

Regardless of the policies your company adopts around workplace romances, chances are you may have to deal with at least one office relationship at some point. Keep these tips in mind to help minimize problems and swiftly resolve any issues that may arise:

  1. Promote a culture of professionalism and respect: Actively discourage unfair treatment in the workplace.
  2. Provide training: Offer training on the policies surrounding workplace romances and what employees should do about any concerns caused by such relationships. If employees clearly understand what the policies are and the corresponding rights and obligations they may have, they will be more likely to come forward with any concerns.
  3. Encourage communication: Employees need to be told the company has an open-door policy to report concerns confidentially. People will not risk reporting if they are concerned that doing so will negatively impact them.
  4. Investigate concerns: If you receive a report about concerns related to a workplace romance, take it seriously and promptly investigate the matter. If the concerns are substantiated, take steps to stop the concerning conduct. Be sure to follow up to ensure the steps taken actually resolved the issue.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing workplace romances in the #MeToo era. In deciding which approach to take, an employer should always make sure its policies are in line with its overall workplace culture.

Don’t Forget to Update Related Policies and Training

When crafting a formal approach to workplace romances, be sure to set aside time to review your anti-harassment, anti-retaliation, and complaint policies for any gaps. Make changes as appropriate. In addition, employers should also consider implementing workplace relationship training for managers and employees. Such policies and training can be proof of an employer’s efforts to proactively and effectively address the potential implications of romance in the workplace.

By putting effective policies and action plans in place today, you can ensure office relationships do not disrupt your workplace and mitigate your risk of legal liability.

Mathew Parker is a partner in the Columbus, Ohio, office of national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

By Mathew A. Parker