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A Guide to Dating Your Coworkers

Updated: May 25, 2023

This week we learned that yet another powerful CEO was fired over sexual misconduct in the workplace.

According to The New York Times, Steve Easterbrook of McDonald’s has been engaged in a consensual relationship with an employee that was against company policy.

I’m not feeling too bad for him and his $675,000 severance package.

But what about the rest of us? Is dating at work (or even hanging with the opposite sex) something that should be completely avoided at the risk of career suicide?

As a leader, what should you do if you spot a budding romance on your team?

Apparently, about 1/3 of married couples met their spouses at work. This isn't surprising — after all, where better to meet someone who might share your background, interests, and financial goals?

And hey, at least you know that person has a steady job!

I’ve seen a few forbidden work romances turn into happy marriages complete with children and a house in the suburbs.

When we look at relationships in the workplace, we need to factor that into the equation too. We are humans who want and need companionship and that is just going to happen at work sometimes.

Putting in a no-tolerance policy just causes people to be sneakier, sleazier, and more paranoid.

And, we wouldn’t have power couples like:

  • Bill and Melinda Gates

  • Barack and Michelle Obama

  • Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze

  • Jim and Pam

So, I say…let them date. But what kind of HR person would I be if I didn’t offer a few guidelines?

Don’t Date Your Co-workers

I was inspired to write this in response to an article via Kate Bischoff, Attorney at tHRive Law & Consulting. In it, she states that her grandfather had it right when he said, “Don’t get your money where you get your honey.”

An employer is liable for unlawful harassment whenever the harasser is of sufficiently high rank to fall “within that class…who may be treated as the organization’s proxy.”

Romance turns into harassment if someone wants out of the relationship but feels like they can’t do so without risking their position. This can be especially difficult for uber-high-ranking officials who might not be able to correctly navigate the situation (or might just be sleazeballs).

So, if you are a CEO, I suggest getting a profile.

Read Your Company Policy

In response to the me too movement, companies have implemented a range of policies from "don’t date anyone ever" to "don’t date anyone in your chain of command."

Yep, your company probably has a policy. Read it.

Ugh...handbooks. I know, I know, I can hear you from here. But it's your responsibility to know where your company stands so you can move forward in such a way that respects everyone.

Report the Relationship

If things are going well and think you might have met The One at work, tell your manager. If you are the manager and are helping your employees navigate this, go to HR.

Even if you do have a no-tolerance policy (and you are not the CEO), here are a few things you can do to you’re your employees keep their careers and budding romance.

Sign a Consensual Relationship Agreement. HR can help you navigate this, but both parties must sign a document stating that they are in a consensual relationship and won’t sue the company if it all goes sour.

Change departments. If the couple is in the same chain of command, it’s best if someone moves to another department. That helps the company avoid the whole Quid Pro Quo liability that comes from power inequities.

Leave personal stuff at home. I know a newfound romance is exciting, but no one wants to see that at work. Plus, perception is reality. Coach them to keep the gossip mill in check by keeping the flirting away from the office (unless you’re Jim and Pam).

Foster Male & Female Friendships at Work

I’ve heard countless stories of men and women afraid to be alone together because of fear of accusations. And coworkers are quick to super-sleuth potential relationships and point fingers.

But most people aren’t going to work looking for love; they are looking for a paycheck, professional growth, and a rewarding career.

To add to that, men still hold 95% of the top positions in companies, so avoiding male/female relationships is the exact opposite thing we should be doing to promote workforce equality.

I used to have a manager who would critique HR by saying, “We always manage to the lowest common denominator.” The lowest common denominator in Corporate America is those who abuse their power to manipulate and take advantage of others.

There are plenty of leaders who need a swift "kick in the crotch" (no, I don't mean this literally) and some jail time.

On the other side of the coin, magic happens when people come together at work: Collaboration, innovation, empowerment, and fulfillment.

In our quest to reduce risk, we must foster — not over-legislate — our teams so that they can flourish together.

Think your company is too small to have a dedicated HR Resource? Think again. Send me a message: I would love to help you recruit and retain amazing talented people for your organization.

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