Workzone: Path of romance has thorns

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Negotiating the steeps and curves bound to pop up along any romantic journey takes a spirit of goodwill and collaboration of both parties. But when that journey begins inside the office, some companies are demanding that their human resources officers are taken along for the ride.

"Romance in the workplace can be extremely difficult to manage, not only for the lovebirds themselves, but for companies that are concerned that the romance will cause an unwelcome distraction. Even worse for a company, though, is the potential for such a situation to cause a lawsuit -- a failed relationship in the office has the potential to turn into a costly sexual harassment suit," said a paper written by Katie Loehrke, a human resources expert with Neenah, Wis.-based compliance firm J.J. Keller & Associates.

During a time when 59 percent of employees have engaged in a workplace romance, according to a 2011 survey, and 84 percent of workers ages 18-29 have no qualms with office romance, according to a recent Workplace Options survey, companies are loath to ban romances across the board.

Outside of separating supervisors and employees who have formed romances and ensuring no favoritism is occurring due to a romantic relationship, Ms. Loehrke said employers generally take a more hands-off approach when it comes to employee relationships.

Part of the reason, she said, is the increase in hours spent with co-workers makes forming bonds almost inevitable. Another factor is that secret romances could put a company at risk for a sexual harassment suit if the effects of a breakup seep into the workplace.

"It's a slippery slope because employees can have contact on their own time but as soon as that contact becomes unwelcome and affects the workplace, employers need to get involved," she said. "Even if someone is not getting messages on their work time, if they're getting messages during the evening and it makes them uncomfortable at work, then it becomes an employer's problem."

To avoid the pitfalls, Ms. Loehrke said some companies have instituted policies encouraging employees to tell human resources when a relationship begins and ends and to remind those involved in romances of the office's official policies surrounding sexual harassment.

For couples hoping to make their relationship a nonfactor in the workplace, Ms. Loehrke said the key is to remain professional regardless of what's going on personally.

"If a relationship does get to the point of romance," she said, "employers should trust employees to handle themselves professionally."

For employers hoping to keep the peace, she said, the best course of action is to encourage honesty so that managers know exactly how long the relationship remains consensual in case harassment claims arise.

And while 30 percent of workers engaged in office romances took the journey all the way to the alter, according to the 2012 CareerBuilder office romance survey, Ms. Loehrke said it's often best for employers to assume the worst and cover their bases.

"For employers, the benefits [of office romance] are definitely not as big as the risks. Chances are much greater that something eventually goes sour and the employer has to deal with the issue."

Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.

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