DISCLAIMER: This post provides general information about sexual harassment and workplace dating. It is not legal advice. If you require information or advice applied to your unique situation, please make an appointment to discuss it with an attorney in your jurisdiction.
Yes, employers can prohibit workplace dating. When it comes to managers dating employees they supervise, these prohibitions are especially important. Dating partners are never truly equal when one has the power to assign work, grant time off, or make other employment decisions. Even when the partner with the lower rank says they feel the relationship is equal despite the power imbalance, it’s not.
Some employers also require co-workers who are dating to sign agreements promising to keep their relationships professional in the workplace. There’s little wonder why such policies are adopted. Even in my profession, 67% percent of women report that sexual assault frequently occurs in the workplace. Similarly, an estimated 10% of intimate partner violence cases involve people who work together.
It might be easy to adopt a policy against employees dating each other, but the enforcement can be hard when it comes to non-management employees. Managers assume greater responsibilities in exchange for their promotions and pay increases, but there’s no similar agreement with support personnel.
Reducing Employer Risks
If you’re trying to decide how to reduce the risk of sexual harassment or workplace violence incidents when co-workers break up:
- Reinforce existing policies. You don’t necessarily need a special policy against workplace dating. If the relationship is getting in the way of work, treat it like any other distraction. Hold all employees accountable for doing their jobs effectively, regardless of who they are dating.
- Don’t try to prohibit workplace dating. It’s common, especially when employees don’t have a lot of time outside of work to meet other dating partners. It’s not the dating, or even the sex they might be having, that concerns you. It’s the potential interference with work, which is why Recommendation #1 is to reinforce existing policies.
- Check your biases. Many employers have restricted heterosexual relationships while failing to notice or acknowledge other forms of coupling. This can lead to several types of discrimination complaints. Again, focus on whether the work is getting done, not who is hooking up with who. That will reduce the likelihood of a discriminatory misstep.
Is Dating This Co-Worker Worth Leaving Your Job?
Although I encourage employers to be more realistic in their expectations regarding workplace dating and prepare for it, co-workers planning to date need to prepare for the consequences, too. Even if your employer doesn’t have a policy preventing you from dating, think it through:
- Does your employer have a policy against workplace dating? If one of you is a supervisor, there is usually a restriction on the two of you having anything other than a professional relationship.
- Will this be the first time you’ve made a move on this co-worker? If not, and you didn’t get a yes, don’t make another one. That is exactly the conduct that can result in a sexual harassment claim.
- Assume that when you are at work or in someone else’s workplace, the intent is to work.
- What are the risks, versus the potential rewards? If you’re not one to go beyond what is required at work or in relationships, your risk of conflict is great. If you’re just looking for a “quick hit,” things are going to get very awkward at work and you might be the one who wants to leave.