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by Vault Careers | March 10, 2009

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The problem with "no dating" policies (and variations as to coworker not being permitted to date anyone within "their workgroup") is that few (less than 5 percent) of all organizations employ them (boss/subordinate relationships are a separate issue and 2/3rds of all small companies, according to one survey, don't even ban them). The reason for this low use is that they generally just don't work. Employees resent their company telling them what they can or cannot do, and people attract one another, despite the presence of such strict rules.

Seasoned legal experts cast doubt on the legal viability of "no dating" restrictions, ranging from First Amendment rights of privacy arguments to various state privacy acts. Additionally, the problem is that lovers dive underground when the penalty for such a natural occurrence is termination if their relationship is discovered. Then, if problems surface in that relationship, there is no "release valve" where complaints can be aired--thus, there is the climate for problems to become even worse. Further, the question of just what is or isn't a date becomes a way for plaintiff attorneys to hack away at these policies. For example, if two employees are watching the Sunday afternoon Superbowl, then are they on a "date"?

What makes more sense is for senior management to put into place a "ombudsman" or "higher complaint" office where workers can take their complaints on a confidential, non-discriminating, and discrete basis. The emphasis is on how to best solve problems in a managerial sense, rather than trying to ban them in a legalistic, policy-wise way. Interestingly enough, we have seen a total swing away from the "Leave It to Beaver" Sixties times when "no-dating" policies were quite widespread.

During the past three decades, there has been a swing away from these restrictive polices, because employees simply don't want to work in these "uptight" type of situations. Workers tend to take their relationship over that job, but not their careers. A numbers of HR managers and officers believe that these restrictive rules are unenforceable, and the biggest problems they had were with their managerial employees, rather than just being limited to their entry-level workers. The trend is for companies to dismantle, rather than implement, such restrictive rules-especially with respect to coworkers (where some 80 percent of all office romances are centered). As mentioned, boss/subordinate issues entail a quite different discussion, and that simply "banning" them has not seemed to stem the tide of these occurrences.

~There are numbers of studies and experiences of companies that indicate that the fears of sexual harassment lawsuits from office romances are much more than the reality. AT&T, for example, employs some 8,000 couples who met and married while at their job, but had only 18 sexual harassment lawsuits last year (the great majority being the alledged and abject "quid pro quo" ones, which are not broken romance types). HR experts understand the argument about the high costs of defense, but the problem is that these restrictive policies create even higher costs (and even more lawsuits), as seen above. The great majority of relationships (that originate but not necessarily end) at a company do not end in sexual harassment litigation-and companies need to balance this in their decision in implementing reasonable and viable employment policies.

Over 90 percent of all organizations do not prohibit coworker relationships, using an informal policy of "benign neglect." This changes, of course, as one reviews boss/subordinate involvements. And industries can be more accepting, or not, depending not only on how that industry is changing and the work hours (i.e., media, broadcasting, and some software industries), but also individual supervisors (which is the reason for having a separate "romance" policy from the stated sexual harassment policy).

Further, restrictive policies are not the best corporate defense that one might first think. They lead to even worse situations because there is no place for grievances to go, as well as establishing bad morale for workers. Employees just don't follow those polices and resent this intrusion into their private affairs. There are better solutions, such as employing more humane and reasonable policies that recognize that people attract one another, no matter what rules you put in their way. The experience has been that restrictive policies just buy more expensive lawsuits for companies to defend against.

Even with respect to boss/subordinate involvements, various large companies will "discourage" them for legalistic reasons but won't fire offenders. For example, just what do you do if a woman in management is fast tracking and happens to become involved with one of her subordinates? (Hopefully, the same rules will be applied if the boss is a man). If transfer is not an option for either one (or both), then the company can transfer the performance evaluation functions to a third party until something else is worked out. The key is that the company needs to place a managerial emphasis on what it does under a flexible policy rather than a rigid, inflexible one.

Think about where your company's policies on office romances fit into this discussion, and what changes you would make, when you have that executive chance.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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