Workplace Dating: How a Sexual Harassment Policy Can Mitigate Risks

Read Time: 5 mins.

Let’s face it, workplace dating and relationships happen all the time. If you think about how much time we spend at work with our co-workers, it’s not all that surprising.

A study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management  (SHRM) revealed that one in three workers have been involved in a relationship with a co-worker before. Of those who had never been in a workplace relationship before, 20 percent had chosen to abstain because they were apprehensive about the potential for sexual harassment claims.

Interestingly, only two percent of all the employees polled by SHRM admitted to currently being involved with a colleague, possibly because they feared being discovered by others.

With increased awareness of inappropriate behavior and more cases of sexual harassment made the news each week, these office romances seem to be slowing down some due to worries over being misinterpreted.

To many, the rejected advances of a co-worker can go dangerously wrong, leading to claims of sexual harassment, stalking, and even violence.

To avoid any negative outcomes when it comes to workplace dating, it’s prudent for every employer to create a clear written policy on what the company expects from employees who decide to pursue a workplace relationship and the risks associated with doing so. Or, if a workplace relationship is even tolerated at all.

All employees should be trained at least once a year on sexual harassment to ensure all understand how serious this matter is, and the potential risks they could face if they choose to participate in an office romance.

The company should also update the sexual harassment policy every year, that includes casual co-worker dating and other office relationships, with guidelines for seeking help if something negative impacts an employee’s work life. Your employees need to know they have a strong HR team to back them up if they ever feel uncomfortable in their workplace.

Read along as we explain workplace dating policies as well as the proper ways to enforce a dating policy within your business.

Workplace Dating and Sexual Harassment

From an employer standpoint, the purpose of a sexual harassment policy is to educate and enforce the company’s position on avoiding unprofessional behaviors.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as, “…unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex or gender orientation that are offensive and so frequent/severe as to create a hostile work environment or results in an adverse employment decision.”

Here’s an example scenario: A female supervisor starts dating a male co-worker on her team, but he breaks things off with her within a few weeks. She begins referring to him as a “dog” to others and shares his lack of performance in the bedroom as the reason for the breakup.

This type of behavior is humiliating to the male co-worker, and the constant verbal abuse from his supervisor and colleagues causes him to become stressed out and unable to complete work tasks. The male co-worker can’t even attend meetings where she is present. Where does he turn, because after all, he did willingly engage in a relationship with his boss for a brief period of time?

In this case, the male employee has every right to file a sexual harassment claim against his supervisor. While he may have actively dated the woman, he did not ask to be harassed and degraded by her after the fact. Even his co-workers are in on it now. His best choice is to talk to someone in human resources.

Workplace Dating Rules and Guidelines: What to Follow

Every workplace policy on sexual harassment should include a clause on dating rules and regulations. These guidelines should be included in the employee handbook of the workplace, providing quick and easy access to all employees at all times. Consider some guidelines:

  • If an employee is interested in a co-worker, he or she must respectfully talk to the other person and accept that they may or may not be interested. Move on and consider dating people outside the organization.
  • If the other person is dating, married, or in a stable relationship, it is probably best to avoid flirting with them or getting involved with them romantically.
  • If two co-workers become romantically entwined, they should refrain from all forms of intimacy and affectionate behaviors while on company time and property. This only serves as a distraction from being productive and can also offend and distract other co-workers.
  • If co-workers become involved and then decide to end the relationship, they must do so respectfully and maturely that does not negatively impact their jobs or work tasks.
  • Employees who are approached by customers or vendors, requesting dates, behaving in sexually advanced or offensive ways are to report this to HR, whether it is welcomed or not.
  • Supervisors who demonstrate favoritism or offer promotions due to being in a relationship with a subordinate are a no-no.
  • Consensual co-worker relationships should be reported to management, including if the parties end the relationship.

Enforcing Workplace Dating Policies

In some cases, employers have set stringent rules about dating and having serious relationships in the workplace. Like we said earlier, some have even banned any kind of office relationships.

According to legal expert Ki Akhbari at Legalmatch, it can be difficult to enforce anti-fraternization policies because people are entitled to their own personal freedoms. He recommends that HR carefully document and manage these types of situations with a policy whereby, “…the employees dating are required to disclose the relationship to the employer.” This can happen in the first 3 months.

Lastly, Akhbari advises that “…employees be required to sign a document stating that the relationship is consensual and that both employees understand the sex discrimination and harassment policy of the employer.” This is extremely helpful in protecting the organization should things go wrong—putting accountability on the employees involved.

A sexual harassment or dating policy within the workplace needs to also take into account the many ways that people express their feelings and communicate with each other. For example, text messaging can be construed as flirting with another co-worker if taken out of context. People sharing their new relationship status on social networks, such as Facebook or Instagram, can be a source of emotional upset, should one party not agree.

In any case, whether your organizations support workplace dating or not, employees should always be trained on sexual harassment topics to make them aware of their own behaviors, as well as others. This can help to deter an employee from pursuing a relationship with a coworker, which has the potential for trouble.

One of our main goals at Greenleaf HR is to inform and educate our current customers, or just readers stopping by. When it comes to any workplace policies or regulations, it’s always a good idea to stay up-to-date on best practices, so that your employees remain safe, happy, and comfortable. If you’d like to learn more about workplace dating policies, or any of the HR payroll services we offer, reach out to us, here. Let us help you take your company forward, faster.

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