Workplace romance: Office dating bans don't work, but policy guidelines can help

When the pandemic was keeping many workers remote, office romance was the last thing on the mind of most employers. Now, with many employees called back to the office at least a few days a week, it’s a good time to revisit the topic of dating and romance in the workplace, according to Deborah Brouwer, managing partner of Detroit-based management side labor and employment law firm Nemeth Bonnette Brouwer PC. 

“Many long-term relationships and marriages begin in the workplace. That’s why implementing a rigid no-dating policy is unrealistic, not to mention awkward — if not impossible — to enforce,” Brouwer said. “It can also introduce unnecessary negativity into the corporate culture. Companies need to accept the reality that people who are thrown together eight hours a day will form relationships with co-workers, and some of those relationships will be romantic or sexual.”

While outright office romance bans do not work, there are still policy guidelines that can be implemented to mitigate the risks inherent in workplace romance. For starters, Brouwer suggests a fraternization or personal relationship policy that strongly discourages romantic relationships between a supervisor/manager and an employee.

“When employees become aware that a supervisor and a subordinate are dating, there is a real risk they will assume the subordinate is getting special treatment. That perception of favoritism can create morale problems and ultimately lower productivity,” Brouwer said. “Employment and promotion decisions can be questioned when a manager and a subordinate date. What happens when the relationship is over? That’s when the real trouble can begin, especially when there are no policy guidelines,” Brouwer said.

If the manager decides to end the relationship, a scorned lover may claim the relationship was never consensual but was, in reality, sexual harassment. If the subordinate breaks off the romance, the subordinate may claim that any negative employment decisions that follow are retaliatory. Brouwer says a fraternization policy aims to address those circumstances before they arise.

Typically, when a manager/subordinate relationship ends, it’s the subordinate who ends up being forced (or feeling compelled) to leave. However, that’s not always the case, as was seen with former University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel. Also, the married Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, recently stepped down after admitting to having a consensual relationship with a former employee.

Regardless of who may end the relationship, if it does end, it can cause tension in the workplace that can affect work performance and productivity. Looking at fraternization policies in general, Brouwer offers the following suggestions.

When a supervisor/subordinate romance occurs, the employer’s policy should require the manager to disclose it immediately. The supervisor and the employee should not be permitted to work together on the same matters, and the supervisor should have no decision-making authority with regard to that employee. 

A fraternization policy should also address romances between coworkers of equal rank. They should be cautioned to avoid displays of affection while at work and informed that if the relationship produces a disruptive work environment, they may be subject to discipline. Good Morning America’s recent brouhaha with anchors Amy Robach and TJ Holmes illustrates the challenges that can arise when peers date — especially when they are both married to others (even if separated from their respective spouses). While both are now gone, their ABC News employer was faced with a costly scandal and management decisions the company likely hadn’t anticipated. 

When drafting a fraternization policy, employers need to be careful with the language of the policy. Policies that merely prohibit “fraternization” without specifying that they apply to romantic relationships, could be construed as preventing coworkers from discussing their terms and conditions of employment. Such policies have been found unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act.

“The implementation of a fraternization policy cannot solve every problem that may arise from office romances, but at a minimum, it places employees on notice of what is expected of them and provides guidance to management about how to effectively handle these issues when they occur,” Brouwer said, adding that with more employees back on-site, it’s a good time to revisit a variety of personnel policies; dating among co-workers is just one of them.