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 Guidelines to Help Avoid Problems

As Paul Wolfowitz's resignation as President of the World Bank took effect last week, he left behind an open-ended question: Do workplace romances always create a conflict of interest? This is an issue that is increasingly being raised at organizations that don't have a formal policy.

In fact, a joint poll conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management

How a "Love Contract" Can Help Reduce Liability 

    One trend in managing workplace dating involves creating "love contracts" or consensual relationship agreements. These documents have existed for years, usually for top executives, but they are becoming more popular in the wake of increased sexual harassment suits and scandals involving workplace romance.
    Both parties sign the contract, which outlines guidelines for entering into a relationship.
    The simplest love contracts merely stipulate that the relationship is consensual and that both parties are aware of sexual harassment guidelines, a move that helps protect against lawsuits in the future. However, other love contracts are more detailed and contain joint agreements that a future breakup won't affect either party's work performance. Some even contain clauses that require one person to leave the company if the relationship ends.

Why HR Professionals Say Work Romances

Are Discouraged

Sexual harassment claims


Potential for retaliation


Lowered productivity


Lowered morale


Viewed as unprofessional


Source: Society for HR Management/

CareerJournal.com poll

and CareerJournal.com found that 72 percent of organizations responding had no written or verbal policies regarding workplace romance.

Yet studies show that a fair number of people meet on the job, enter into relationships and even marriage while continuing to work together. In many cases, these relationships are well known and accepted.

In the mid-1980's, I was given a special fellowship to Glassboro State (now Rowan) University discussing employment issues. As an attorney for smaller and emerging businesses, I suggested that a policy forbidding workplace romances was safest for the employer. The HR professionals from some of Southern New Jersey's largest companies, including Campbell's Soup, RCA, and other companies complained that such a limitation would severely hamper recruitment. They asserted that a large number of potential romantic interests was important to new hires. In the intervening 20 years, the internet may have a general impact, but the office romance is still an important aspect of work.

 We've come a long way since the days when romantic liaisons were prohibited in many workplaces. In the movie Good Night and Good Luck, set in the 1950s, a couple takes off their wedding rings before going to work because marriage between employees is against company policy.

Supervisor-Subordinate Relationships

Today, many perceived conflicts tend to arise when supervisors date, or are married to, subordinates. This was the situation with Wolfowitz, who oversaw Shaha Riza's pay raises during his tenure. Riza worked at the World Bank prior to Wolfowitz taking over as President in 2005. Although she changed her job responsibilities to work with the State Department --presumably to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest -- she remained on the World Bank's payroll. Wolfowitz maintains that he acted in good faith when he approved Riza's lucrative pay package, but once the relationship came to light, a special bank panel concluded the amount was in excess of the institution's acceptable range.

Drawing Up a Policy

The publicity the Wolfowitz scandal engendered has sent some employers back to the drawing board to establish ethical workplace dating standards. And while many business owners, CEOs and human resources executives still frown on workplace romance due to concerns over potential sexual harassment lawsuits, prohibiting any involvement between co-workers is rare and tremendously difficult to enforce.

Therefore, the objective should be to set standards for preventing conflicts of interest, lost productivity, decreased morale and potential liability. When it comes to establishing a dating policy, here are some guidelines to consider:

  • When a supervisor becomes romantically involved with a subordinate, attempt to offer comparable employment in another department to one of the individuals.
  • Develop a communication channel that employees can use to express concerns about favoritism being exhibited by dating or married colleagues. Employees should be able to do this with a degree of anonymity and protection.
  • Describe appropriate communication and contact during work hours, including limits on public displays of affection. Often, dating or married colleagues are not aware they are crossing boundaries and it helps to remind them to retain a line of separation between their work and personal lives.
  • Make sure regular sexual harassment training is provided so employees are aware of what constitutes legally acceptable behavior with regard to romantic overtures.

Even if some of these steps are taken, you may find that romantic relationships in the workplace are not the only problem your organization may face. Consider the following questions:

  • How should you handle complaints about a manager's favoritism toward an employee who happens to be a relative or close friend?
  • What should you do if you find out an employee is dating someone who works for your closest competitor?
  • Should you prohibit employees from dating customers?
  • What if you want to fire someone whose spouse is one of your most valuable employees?

Managing Workplace Romances: A Mission That Can Be Accomplished

As you can see, the close relationships of staff members can be a minefield for employers. While eliminating all personal entanglements is probably impossible, creating an environment where workplace relationships are managed is possible. The key is developing a company-wide set of standards and making sure that all remedies and actions taken are related to an employee's job performance. If guidelines regarding workplace romances and relationships have fairness at their core, employees are more likely to appreciate and respect the boundaries.

Virtualex.com Ronald J. Cappuccio, J.D., LL.M.(Tax) 1800 Chapel Avenue West Suite 128 Cherry Hill, NJ 08002 Phone:(856) 665-2121      Fax: (856) 665-9005 Email: ron@taxesq.com
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