Human Resources

Cupid and the Cubicle

Workplace romance is inevitable—so be ready when love becomes a liability.

April 26, 2013
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After catching up on several Mad Men episodes, I felt compelled to address consensual relationships in the workplace.

As we spend more time at work, consensual relationships will continue to develop there. As a result, credit unions must be prepared to identify and manage workplace romances to prevent liability.
Up to 40% of employees admit to having had a consensual romantic or dating relationship with a co-worker, according to—and this doesn’t include the many one-sided flirtations or crushes.
It’s not realistic to impose strict prohibitions on workplace dating. Furthermore, certain states such as New York prohibit employers from controlling employee behavior outside the workplace.
Workplace relationships can, however, create not only the risk of legal claims, such as sexual harassment and retaliation, but also allegations of favoritism and lost productivity due to distraction.
Legal claims under federal and state laws provide not only compensatory damages, but also damages for emotional distress and the payment of attorney fees for the employee who has asserted the claim. Often, the plaintiff employee will sue both the employer and the individual charged with harassing or discriminating against the plaintiff.
Employees in a truly consensual relationship will have a hard time pursuing claims of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Unfortunately, many consensual relationships end negatively, or one of the participants may not view the relationship as consensual at all. As a result, employers can face unexpected claims—and quickly find themselves unwittingly entrenched in the details of their employees’ personal lives.
To prevent liability, credit unions should:
  • Review and update their anti-harassment and antidiscrimination policies;
  • Notify employees there is a mandatory reporting process for claims of harassment, and retaliation to-ward an employee who makes a report is prohibited.
  • Implement a consensual relationship policy that requires employees to disclose to human resources or a trusted senior manager that they’re involved in a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a co-worker.
This policy should also address relationships between employees and volunteers (i.e., board members), and it should clearly state that failure to comply will result in disciplinary action.
  • Identify when a conflict of interest will exist due to a consensual relationship and how the credit union can resolve the conflict. A consensual relationship between a supervisor and subordinate, for example, will create a myriad of conflicts. Make it clear reassignment of duties may result due to such a relation-ship.
  • Require a consensual relationship agreement when a supervisor and subordinate are involved in a consensual romantic or sexual relationship. This will document that the relationship is truly voluntary and not in violation of the credit union’s antiharassment policy.
  • The agreement also should remind employees of the need to report any acts in violation of an-ti-harassment or retaliation policies.
  • Review and update other policies, such as restricting the ability to send personal text messages or emails during work hours, to limit inappropriate communications. Also, restrict the use of personal cameras which may record inappropriate contact or flirting in the workplace.
  • Examine other policies and practices, including those for expense reimbursements that allow co-workers to drink socially on the credit union’s dime. Evaluate staff’s plans, itineraries, and expenses for business travel and conferences. Set clear expectations that employees will interact professionally at all times during such events.
  • Train management to be aware of consensual relationships and educate managers on all applicable policies and best practices.
Turning a blind eye on workplace romance serves no one well. Communication through training and poli-cies can help employers avoid the unintended consequences of workplace romance.
Fortunately for credit unions, there’s only one Don Draper.

KELLY TILDEN is a shareholder at Farleigh Wada Witt, Portland, Ore.

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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