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February 15, 2011
HR's Questions for the Newly Hooked Up
 
According to dubious accounting, one in five relationships now begins online. While flawed sample structures—like gender-disproportionate occupations and the lack of a uniform definition of “relationship”—prevent firm data on the subject, it’s fair to guesstimate that at least as many romances begin in the office.

There are few lesser headaches for an HR professional than having to step out of the well-defined parameters of an employer-employee relationship and into the personal lives of two (hopefully) single coworkers. Why do you think firms outsource to EAPs? Still, young and old, never-married and divorced, supervisors and subordinates, love blossoms at work. A lenient policy leaves HR open to charges of negligence. A broad-strokes ban on comingling sets up a Montague-Capulet vibe, complete with stolen glances and sword fighting.

Hiring managers can explain firable offenses during the onboarding process. Beyond those black-or-white situations, when you value your employees, each sensitive issue is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. In cases of romance, there are some questions HR can ask the involved parties in order to determine the best way forward. These questions presume the employees are on equal footing in the firm, as many organizations strictly ban superior-subordinate dating.

What is a relationship?
Are the employees coming to you after a few shared drinks at happy hour, or the Monday after they’ve moved in together? Though you don’t want to hear any seedy details, it’s a good idea to ask each employee—independently—what he or she means by “relationship.” If a couple comes to you in the early stages out of a concern for protocol, you can monitor the situation as it evolves. If one or both individuals come to you after a clandestine affair, it may be a warning sign that the bloom is off the rose and you’ll need to prepare for the fallout.

Will the employees keep quiet or go public?
Determine whether the employees will disclose their relationship or keep things quiet. The couple’s direct superiors may have some preferences to that end as well, depending on the existing team dynamic. Don’t be afraid to raise concerns like the productivity and the morale of co-workers. If the lovebirds came to you, they should expect honest feedback.

What if your boy/girl friend is promoted above you?
If you work for a corporate behemoth, policy may dictate that individuals be redistributed. In a modest-to-moderate-sized company, it might not be possible to transfer one party to a different team. As mentioned, many companies have ironclad policies that prohibit supervisor-subordinate relationships, especially those that foster the opportunity for financial or project-oriented favoritism. Says Michael VanDervort, author of The Human Racehorses blog, “I was married to the boss once. We eventually agreed it would best if one of us got a different job, and so I did. I mean she owned the company! What else could I do?” Ask your employees to think about—if not to determine—how the relationship affects their goals within the company.
 
Will you sign a contract?  
In a post-zero-tolerance world, sexual harassment protocols dictate hours of training and piles of paperwork for new hires. You might want to consider adding a “love contract” to the stack. Love contracts ask the parties to acknowledge that 1) the relationship is consensual; 2) the couple will notify HR about any significant changes to the relationship (including a breakup); and 3) decreased productivity relating to the romance will have professional repercussions.

When dealing with office romance, take co-worker concerns seriously, monitor any warning signs, and, advises Ask a Manager blogger Alison Green, “Don't treat the couple as a unit. If you'd normally talk to them separately about something, don't address them jointly just because they're a couple, and don't ask one to pass along messages from you to the other.”

HR professionals don’t want to be the love police any more than they want to plan the annual holiday party. But until five in five relationships begin online, there’s no escaping the issues presented by on-the-job romances. 

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Anne Rawl is a labor relations representative in Indianapolis, Indiana. She met her husband at work.
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