What do you do when… two employees are dating?

You’ve noticed the flirting. It was pretty subtle at first but now it seems more obvious. Jesse and Karla have started showing up together almost every morning and they go out for lunch almost every day. This relationship is like a storm cloud on your horizon. Don’t they know that when they break up it’s going to be terribly awkward for everyone in the office (not to mention the two of them)? And now they are in the lovey-dovey phase; do you have to worry about catching them playing tonsil hockey in the supply closet? What should you do?

Whoa, we are on dangerous ground with this one, right? I mean what’s more intrusive than messing with someone’s love life? But on the flip side, what is more difficult for an employer than the possibility of a sexual harassment claim, or just the drama of an office romance (and the subsequent break-up)?

The easy answer is to do nothing. It will most likely end on its own. Minimize the drama and get back to work. The more you get involved, the more people are going to talk about it, worry about it and waste time.

Really, why do you even want to get involved with this? Manage as you always have, just ignore the romance. Are they performing the tasks and roles you’ve given them adequately? Is their relationship affecting their judgment, performance, credibility or work? If so, treat it as a performance issue; if not, leave it alone.

That said, there are a couple of complications that might make you want to think further than my easy answer.

Sexual Harassment

What happens if the relationship ends badly and one of the parties decides claims sexual harassment? In this case, if you have a clearly defined and consistently enforced sexual harassment policy you should be fine. If you don’t, you need to establish such a policy whether you have employees dating or not. The dating increases the risk, but the dating isn’t the “problem”. Sexual harassment is the problem. Don’t prevent dating to try to deal with sexual harassment.

Nepotism, conflicts of interest and other forms of favoritism

If the two employees are at different levels in the company, then favoritism (or the appearance of favoritism) could become an issue. The “boss” could treat or ask for favorable treatment for the lover. Even if they are not direct supervisor/subordinate, they could be in the future or it could be their “buddy” who is the subordinate’s boss.

There are employee dating policies that you could add to your employee handbook that deal with this. They often involve some sort of notification that the employee makes to the company to identify that a relationship is consensual. But I have real questions about enforcement: How do you know when a relationship has “crossed the line” and needs to be reported? What do you do if it’s not reported?

If you add something to your handbook, be sure it covers married couples and not just those dating. This is a complex area of HR law, and varies a lot state-to-state, so please consult an HR attorney to help with this.

Proximity invites attraction. Trying to control what happens next seems like trying to hold back the wind. Get out of the way and let nature take its course. But in doing so make sure you protect your company from liability and maintain your team’s performance.

How would you handle this situation?

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