to Help Avoid
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
a "Love Contract" Can Help Reduce
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. |
parties sign the contract, which outlines guidelines for
entering into a relationship.
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
Why HR Professionals Say Work
Society for HR Management/
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
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.
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
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
- Make sure regular sexual harassment training is provided
so employees are aware of what constitutes legally
acceptable behavior with regard to romantic
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
- 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?
Romances: A Mission That Can Be
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.