In the case of office romance and the pandemic, it appears that absence really did make the heart grow fonder.

Despite the rise in remote work and physical distancing, the percentage of employees in a romantic relationship with a colleague has increased since the start of the pandemic. In January 2020, 27% of employees said they are or had been involved in an office romance. That number jumped to 33% in January 2022, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

With employees increasingly returning to physical offices, it’s a good time to check in on your workplace relationship policy.

Risks and rewards

Complicated relationships aren’t just for romantic comedies. As an employer, it can be tricky to navigate the line between personal and professional matters. However, having a policy can help you mitigate some of the potential risks of office relationships. Risks include:

  • Sexual harassment claims and lawsuits
  • Hostile work environments involving unwanted advances, bad breakups or hurtful rumors
  • Damage to your culture amid personal misconduct or claims of favoritism for those in a relationship
  • Discrimination claims if people leave your company because of relationship fallouts

Of course, workplace relationships aren’t all bad. Business News Daily reports that more than one in five (22%) married couples met in the workplace. And forming personal relationships can make employees more engaged, motivated and productive, according to the National Law Review.

It also can help you keep up with modern expectations: In the SHRM survey, 84% of employees said they would be fine with coworkers having a romantic relationship.

Other statistics also indicate that outright banning office romances could be counterproductive:

  • 77% of those in a workplace relationship did not disclose it to their employer.
  • 72% of employees who have had office relationships would do so again, even if a workplace policy banned it.

These responses suggest that bans may create a culture of secrecy and distrust. You could also lose talent if employees decide to leave your organization to avoid disclosure or punishment.

Policy tips

Instead of banning office romances, craft a policy that considers your culture. Are you a large employer with rigid hierarchies? Are you a small employer where people hang out together during and after work? Do your employees talk openly with one another and leadership, or do they put their heads down at work and then head straight home? These cultural insights should guide your office romance policy.

That said, here are some general tips that hold true for most workplace relationship policies:

  • Encourage employees to disclose relationships to HR. Talk to your legal counsel before making this a requirement rather than a voluntary move. In most cases, voluntary disclosure will create a more trusting, open relationship between employees and HR.
  • Create clear rules regarding sexual harassment and professional conduct. Set specific expectations for personal relationships, workplace communications and public displays of affection.
  • Document relationships when they are disclosed or discovered. Note when a relationship started and who was involved. You may need to include relevant communications, like emails, texts and instant messages. SHRM says many companies have policies that allow them to search for information in company emails, social platforms, phones and computers.
  • Uphold the privacy of everyone involved. Leaks and rumors will discourage employees from coming forward and could damage employee morale.
  • Speak positively about relationships. Avoiding punitive language can help promote disclosure. It can also set the tone for mature, professional behavior around sensitive topics.
  • While an outright ban for all employees is problematic, some relationships should be disallowed because of the power dynamics and potential damage to your culture. For example, supervisors should never date direct reports. Many companies also have a policy banning executives from dating employees because of the power imbalance and negative optics.
  • Prohibit any type of favoritism. Nobody should receive preference for projects, clients, business trips or any other work-related matter because of a personal relationship.
  • Look for problematic patterns even under voluntary circumstances. For example, if workplace relationships are leading to women switching roles or leaving your company more often than men, that could lead to discrimination claims.
  • Be specific, but only when necessary. For example, as a way to deter harassment, some company policies ban employees from asking the same coworker for a date more than one time. But if you set too many rules, it can lead to more people secretly having relationships, according to SHRM.

Contract complications

Avoiding secret relationships is a reason more employers are shying away from contracts that employees sign when they disclose a relationship.

The intent of a contract is to document the consensual nature of a relationship and avoid potential legal claims. However, the reality is more complicated.

A contract can serve as a defense to claims of harassment or discrimination. But SHRM notes there have also been cases of employees saying they were coerced into signing the contract, rendering it moot.

This practice could increase the number of people who keep relationships secret because they don’t want to formally sign a contract. For example, some employees may be married, while others may not want to disclose a same-sex relationship to colleagues.

It’s also difficult to define a relationship and when it needs to be signed into a contract. One person might think they are in an exclusive relationship, while the other doesn’t. Other relationships involve more than two people. In these and other cases, a contract can hinder your desire for open communication.

Remember to communicate

Speaking of communication, it isn’t just a good practice for romantic relationships. It’s also important for your policies on office romance.

After you create or refine your policies, send regular reminders throughout the year. Use all of the following:

  • Emails
  • Printed materials
  • Your employee handbook
  • Employee onboarding and orientations
  • Annual training

Make your workplace relationship policies part of your annual equal employment opportunity training. The legal content site JD Supra notes that this type of training can serve as a legal defense to sexual harassment claims in many U.S. states.

Stay on top of trends

Personal and professional relationships continue to evolve. Your policies should reflect changing times and expectations.

For more information, talk with your benefits adviser or legal counsel. They can help you craft or update your policy.