When you hire a lot of passionate, engaging people, a couple of them are bound to hit it off in a way that goes beyond their shared interest in the business. While many organizations take a more relaxed stance toward co-workers dating these days, it can cause trouble when you cross into the realm of manager-subordinate romantic relationships.
“Junior-senior relationships in the office can hurt morale and even harm the company if the people involved forget their professionalism,” says Beth P. Zoller, legal editor at XpertHR. The relationship can lead to claims of favoritism or cause other co-workers to feel uncomfortable and create a hostile work environment.
“Additionally, if the relationship ends, one of the employees may claim the relationship was not consensual, that the employee was sexually harassed, or that that employee was retaliated against if that employee receives a poor performance review from the former paramour,” says Zoller.
Do you need an official policy?
Many experts say it’s important for companies to have policies in place that address junior-senior relationships. This policy should reserve the employer’s right to make employment decisions, including transferring or changing lines of communication, Zoller says. “By doing so, the employer can avoid conflicts of interest that may affect the workplace and other employees and compromise the employer’s own legitimate business interests,” she says.
Global management and strategy consultant Kathleen Brush says when a company she’s working with doesn’t have a policy expressly forbidding superior-subordinate relationships, she lobbies hard to get one in place. “I do this because [relationships] can cause a lot of damage. Dangerous liaisons have no place in the workplace. They are dead ringers for cascading violations of integrity.”
Get your facts straight
One of the major concerns regarding junior/senior dating is that there may be an element of coercion. “When one has a reasonable suspicion that a boss/subordinate are dating, that individual should immediately report their suspicion to human resources, which can then ensure that there are safeguards in place,” says Matthew Brophy, assistant professor of philosophy at High Point University. “The subordinate, for example, needs to be assured that he or she should not feel coerced into dating their boss, and that he or she will be protected if the subordinate wishes to terminate the relationship.”
If your company has a policy in place and you hear employees are violating it, confirm what you’ve heard before you take action, says HR consultant Mary Nestor-Harper. “If the source is reliable, or if you’ve observed suspicious behavior yourself, go directly to the boss or the senior person in the situation and determine the nature of the relationship, remind them of the policy, and ask for their cooperation and confidentiality. If they continue against policy, use your company’s disciplinary policy to correct the situation.”
Consider a love contract
As a protection against accusations of harassment or coercion, some employers have employees sign a “love contract.” These contracts indicate “that the employees are voluntarily engaging in a romantic relationship, that the relationship will not affect the workplace, and that the participants are aware of the employer’s sexual harassment policies,” Zoller says.
“The main purpose of the love contract is to limit employer liability in the event that the romantic relationship ends,” she explains. “As part of the contract, both employees agree that should their relationship end there will be no work-related retaliation and they will not sue the employer for sexual harassment. The love contract will also set forth guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable romantic behavior in the workplace. “
Not every junior-senior relationship causes trouble, but their sensitive nature means everyone involved needs to be extra-aware of what’s ethical. People who start making bad decisions without thinking at work can soon be missing deadlines, losing productivity and exercising poor judgement on work items, Brush says.
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