Article: Love in the time of work: How HR handles it

Employee Relations

Love in the time of work: How HR handles it

Inter-office romance is something that cannot be avoided. But know your responsibilities and limits before plunging head-long in love
Love in the time of work: How HR handles it

Love blooms in the most unexpected of places. When Sashwat met Irene during on-boarding, something happened between them. They both were aware of the fireworks happening in their hearts, but didn’t know if they could move forward with the ‘feeling’. Because come what may, their jobs were at stake. However, notwithstanding the fear of getting a pink slip, they went to their company’s HR managers to have a conversation. What they learnt gave them a huge relief and added a great fillip to their new relationship. While employees can’t have control over their hearts, they have the right to know their company’s HR policies about intra-office romances, and tread accordingly. 

A Workplace Options survey in 2012 concluded that 85% of 18-29 year olds would have a romantic relationship with a co-worker, compared to 35% for 30-46 year olds and about 30% of 47-66 year olds. Further, 40% of those 18-29 year olds would date their supervisors. Though these statistics might be American, but their universal applicability in undeniable. It is only natural for office colleagues to enter into romantic liaisons, for they spend a greater part of their day with each other. Extended timings, celebratory events, and grabbing lunches together further provides an opportunity for professional acquaintances to become much more than that, in a very less time frame. Though in theory, one should have no objection to two adults willingly forging a romantic relationship, the issue has landed the HR in a pickle since as long as one can recall.

There is no single policy that has been synthesised to ensure the privacy of the employee, along with balancing organisational interests in the sphere of Intra-office dating. Though each organisation has a different take on the issue, and some choose to look away, some organisations prefer not to let it exist in the first place. Since the relationship happens within the ambit, and often, the premises of the office, the fall-outs of a failed relationship also come with their baggage, which are obviously seen as a potential threat, not only to the efficiency of work, but also the work culture. However, the scope of this article focuses on the three popular approaches that HR can take, in the direction of approving or acknowledging workplace dating. To avoid the wrath of the employees, and not come across as a conservative or prohibitive organisation, many organisations do not outright ban the concept of dating their co-workers. The rationale is to let such relationships foster, albeit in a controlled environment, to ensure the rights of employees, but also mitigate the impact of the host of issues that accompany the same.

Three popular approaches have been followed widely by the HR worldwide, when it comes to acceptance of dating within the office:

  1. Absolute Freedom (or No Policy): The most liberal of the three, this approach doesn’t exercise any control over such relationships. Thus, no formal policies exist, and no provisions exist in order to address the issue. Hence, the organisation passes the onus on the individual, and their judgement, and chooses not to invade the privacy of their employees. The biggest threat in this approach is, in case of a bitter end, the HR might plead ignorant, but cannot wash off their hands of the responsibility, if abuse of power has taken place. Though having no policy is not as bad as it may seem, the real problem arises when the relationship is handled via the existing disciplinary and sexual harassment policies. This means that the HR and the management deal with such situations on a case-to-case basis.

  2. Freedom with Disclosure: This approach broadly allows relationships to be fostered, as long as they are officially intimated to the HR. The reason is to simply communicate to the HR, that two employees are seeing each other outside their professional capacities, in order to prevent HR pleading ignorance if claims of sexual harassment, abuse, and complaints come up later. Though its use is contested, the official disclosure can serve useful purposes, by allowing the HR and management to brief the employees entering the relationship regarding certain restrictions, reviews and also discuss all future possibilities, including dissolving the relationship. Since this makes for an awkward official conversation, the exercise of such ‘disclosures’ remains doubtful.

  3. Restricted Freedom: The most widely followed approach; these policies try to restrict the type of relationships that might be formed. Some organisations might prohibit dating within the department or the branch, or dating their superiors or subordinates, or even sometimes colleagues on the same level. This approach gives the employer room to acknowledge the existence of workplace romances, express disapproval for certain types of the same, and at the same time set up safeguards during sexual harassment trainings and procedures. Several organisations ensure that employees are trained about these limits and restrictions, during the sexual harassment training, and more often than not get their employees to sign an undertaking as well. Additionally, the employer might make it mandatory to officially communicate the existence of such a relationship to the HR and the management, in order to check whether they violate the policy or not.

Thus, workplace romance is a concept that has existed since the corporate culture has grown, and companies have tried to gain control over it, in different forms. Though the culture has changed drastically from the earlier parts of twentieth century, when the Ford Motor Company tried to control drinking habits, leisure time, cleanliness and even the sex life of its workers, one cannot deny that organisations are still worried about the aspects of human nature (love, romance, emotions) which though directly impact the working, but cannot be controlled. Some choose to accept the fluidity of the circumstances, and exercise some measures, and some choose to downright prohibit it. At the end of the day, the employer wants maximum productivity and efficiency from all its employees, and anything that tries to remotely threaten the same, naturally becomes a reason for concern.

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Topics: Employee Relations, Culture, Employee Engagement

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