“More” Than a Coworker? Addressing Romance in the Workplace

Considering the risks and potential problems with workplace relationships, how should your company handle a romance at work?



My marriage would crumble if my company had an anti-nepotism policy. Okay, maybe not crumble, but my relationship with my wife, who is also my company’s co-founder, would be different if we were not working together.  

As a business owner, I am not alone in my thinking or in my position -- being married to a coworker. In Utah, we frequently extend the idea of a family-friendly workplace to hiring. And businesses in other states probably hire just as many great referrals who happen to be related to an existing employee. 

 When my wife and I built our business, we hired people we knew and trusted -- friends and relatives mostly. This helped us get staffed up quickly with people we could have confidence in regarding their work ethic and motivation. It took some of the fear of hiring the wrong person out of the equation.  

What business would not sign on for that?  

But not every office romance turns out well. Even if the relationship progresses without a hitch, problems can arise when other co-workers feel they are not receiving equal treatment. And then there is the simple fact that two co-workers who work closely with one another and are involved in a workplace romance can inadvertently make other team members uncomfortable.  

So, should your business stop hiring relatives of employees or ban workplace romances entirely? No. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), of U.S. workers: 

  • Nearly half know of someone who is currently in a workplace romance or who has been in one before 
  • 79% admit to having dated their peers 
  • 40% say they have flirted with someone from their workplace 
  • 24% report they have a "work spouse" 

Considering most people spend more of their weekday waking hours at work than anywhere else, a better plan is to implement a handful of company policies, like the following, to solve problems before they start. 

Create a workplace dating policy 

My wife and I were married before we started our company, so workplace dating policies never applied to us. Still, it is not a bad idea to set some guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior. Have employees sign the company policy when they are first hired and review it annually. 

Conduct annual workplace sexual harassment training 

Review your workplace relationships policy each year with the whole team and let them know of any behavior that is deemed “unacceptable” (check with human resources to determine what should be off limits for public displays of affection). Also, ensure everyone knows how they should address and report questionable behavior.

Require direct reports to sign an acknowledgment of a consensual romantic relationship ("love contract")

This one gets a little tricky, particularly if a dating couple wants their personal lives kept under wraps. However, if a workplace romance blossoms between an employee and their supervisor, they should report their workplace relationship to HR and have both workers sign "love contracts."

This is important so that your company will be protected from sexual harassment litigation, create openness to reduce perception of favoritism, and allow human resources to discuss appropriate behavior for workplace romances.

If the two parties involved do not want other employees to know about their workplace relationship, you must respect their privacy... to the best of your ability. In most cases, these types of secrets find their way out eventually. But the human resource management department should do its part to keep the office relationship in confidence. 

Avoid having managers supervise a relative or someone they are romantically involved with 

Sometimes it is best to simply move the subordinate person to a different department, even if it is a consensual relationship. This will help prevent perceptions of unfair treatment, maintain a higher level of employee morale, and avoid other potential risks.

  • In the event a manager must supervise a relative or partner, the manager should keep detailed notes about ALL personnel decisions 

Sometimes there is no way to avoid the situation. Your responsibility then is to ensure the manager is making very objective decisions. That means they need to keep detailed notes about all employee matters, including pay raises, promotions, performance management, hiring, firing, and so on, whether it pertains to a person they are in a romantic relationship with or someone else.

Remind managers that favoritism is illegal 

Gifts, promotions, raises, preferential treatment, and so on should never be tied to workplace relationships or to any sexual demand or favors. Ever.

Final thoughts on workplace relationships 

I personally do not believe in banning employee romantic relationships -- strict nepotism clauses can be overzealous and prevent you from being an amazing employee simply because of a shared bloodline.  

You want employees to enjoy going to work; that is a critical piece to building a great company culture. In fact, research shows that having a friend at work helps employees be more productive and makes them more satisfied with their jobs, which is another way of saying lower turnover.  

For me, that is my wife. We do not always agree on everything, but I know how she works, and I trust her decisions. As my co-worker, she helps make work a more natural extension of my life.  

The goal with any relationship policies you set is to prevent potential conflict or allegations. That is it. Aside from that, it is fine to hire relatives when they are the right candidates for the job. They give your business a huge advantage because you already know the potential of someone just like them.  

For help with your scenario, please contact your certified HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly.

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