Four out of 10 workers said they’ve dated a colleague at some point in their careers, and three in 10 said they went on to marry a person they dated in the office, according to a 2011 survey by CareerBuilder.com.
Given how much time employees are putting in at the office these days, it’s not hard to predict that the trend isn’t going to diminish.
So, what should a leader’s role be in dealing with and managing interoffice relationships? To start, turning a blind eye to the obvious and sweeping it under the rug is never the way to go.
Given statistics like these, it’s imperative that employees know what is and isn’t acceptable to avoid running counter to cultural norms and expectations. That’s why organizations that don’t provide written policies around workplace relationships are simply leaving the door open to confusion, hurt feelings and, worse yet, potential lawsuits.
Here are some steps to help leaders successfully navigate interoffice relationships:
Create a Realistic Corporate Policy
Do: Get something down on paper — no matter how short or long. A top priority should be a sexual harassment policy. Clearly outline how a claim will be handled, consequences for engaging in such behavior, and reinforce the company’s zero-tolerance position. Also, consider prohibiting a manager from dating a direct report in addition to providing guidelines on how to request a transfer should this type of relationship develop.
Don’t: Create all-encompassing policies that forbid workplace dating. It’s not realistic and policies such as these only force the issue underground, causing employees to sneak around and lie. Even worse, organizations run the risk of losing high-performing talent as the result of a budding relationship. And more often than not, it’s the stronger performer who leaves, knowing he or she will have a better chance at landing another job.
Encourage a Healthy Dose of Communication
Do: Encourage employees to be open and honest about interoffice relationships with colleagues and peers. If they are dishonest or purposefully vague, an undercurrent of tension typically occurs among co-workers. At the same time, there is a healthy balance between sharing the right type of information and not overstepping professional boundaries. To ensure this, leaders must emphasize that the workplace is not the appropriate setting for discussing intimate details and that the other person’s privacy must always be considered.
Don’t: Disclose an employee’s relationship on their behalf or before they are ready. Those involved in the relationship should always be the ones in control of the messaging. In that vein, it would be in a leader’s best interest never to engage in office gossip or water cooler chatter while advising others to do the same. The resulting damage to trust of insensitive actions or remarks may prove insurmountable and the legal ramifications could be significant.
Take Interoffice Dynamics Into Consideration
Do: Make it clear to employees that they are in a professional environment and will be expected to behave as such no matter how “personal” work gets. It’s often up to leaders to discuss how an employee will handle the situation should the relationship not work out — especially if it ends badly. Having such a candid conversation up front can keep unwelcome workplace drama at bay down the road.
Don’t: Separate colleagues on a team or project simply because they are in a relationship. Unless told otherwise, leaders can consider them capable of balancing their personal and professional lives in an appropriate manner before making a decision on their behalf. The fact that they will likely continue their job-related conversations and collaborations outside the workplace could be seen as a positive.
Halley Bock is the CEO of Fierce Inc., a leadership development and training company that aims to improve workplace communication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.