February brings Valentine’s Day and overtures of romantic feelings, including in the workplace. Surprised? Considering how many waking hours we spend at work, it is to be expected. In fact, it is already happening: in the cafeteria, the parking lot, around the water cooler, lingering at the end of a staff meeting, or behind the stacks in the warehouse.
For decades, these overtures were typically accompanied by a card, a box of chocolates, maybe a stuffed animal. Today, we express our feelings through e-mails, text messages, on social media. How those communications are received will depend on the nature of the relationship. When they are not part of a reciprocal relationship, employers have to deal with the consequences. “Valentine’s Season” is the perfect time to remind employees of your expectations on dating and personal relationships. Put the topic on the agenda of the next staff meeting. Bring a few Kisses (Hershey, that is!) to pick your employees’ interest.
Acknowledging the possibility of romantic relationships in the workplace comes with addressing how to manage them. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to address workplace relationships. Nonetheless, keep in mind a few guidelines when developing an attractive policy on workplace relationships. If not, you risk a dramatic meltdown when the romance sours.
This is exactly what happened recently in a small organization with 15 employees. The relationship between two employees blossomed and provided fodder for office gossips. When the honeymoon turned to sour grapes, the atmosphere in the small office became uncomfortable. Relationships were strained. Coworkers felt they had to take side on the romantic divide. The situation was eventually resolved when the female employee resigned, creating a vacuum in the organization capability.
From the employer’s standpoint, your key concern is to protect from allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation by employees directed towards your managers and supervisors. As the real-life experience shows, there is always a concern about productivity and favoritism stemming from relationships at work. A good policy prohibits romantic or sexual relationships between supervisors and direct subordinates if nothing else.
When it comes to technological expressions of affection, employers should address how the policy plays out through e-mail, texting and social media. Remember your employees shouldn’t have any expectation of privacy when using your networks on company time. In most states, employer-provided phones and computers remain the property of the employer, and communications and Internet usage with these devices remain subject to employer monitoring.
Take advantage of your next staff meeting to address the topic of romantic relationships. Remind supervisors of to be attuned to the use of technology, especially e-mail, texting and social media, and personal relationships at work. Discussing the subject openly and setting expectations may deter supervisors, and possibly employees, from engaging in workplace relationships in the first place.
And what about a training on sexual harassment prevention, retaliation, discrimination? Training is an important tool words to come off the page and become a reality in the workplace. If your last training was more than 3 years ago, you are due for another one as the definitions of protected categories expanded and the jurisprudence is evolving.