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Love in the Time of COVID: Workplace Romance in Reel Life and Real Life

Labor & Employment

In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, SHRM published an article highlighting a new survey on office romances. Among the key findings of the survey: 34% of employees are or have been in a workplace romance, compared to 26% in the previous year, and 25% of American workers either began or continued an office romance during the pandemic. While initially this seems counterintuitive due to the pandemic, upon reflection this makes some sense. Even in normal times, research says that Americans spend at least 50% of their waking hours working. With much of the country under enforced social isolation, work is now the main point of human connection for a large portion of the population. So, it stands to reason that more employees would be finding romance with their colleagues at work.

Of course, romantic entanglements at work are nothing new in our culture – it’s the stuff movie and TV magic is made of. The Proposal revolves around a supervisor/subordinate relationship gone wildly awry, with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds trying to fool not only family, friends and colleagues, but also an INS agent. Love Actually contains at least five work-related subplots, not all of which end well (poor Alan Rickman and Laura Linney, but yay, Colin Firth!). On the small screen, Schitt’s Creek fans cheered for Rose Apothecary co-workers David and Patrick as they finally said “I do”, and who didn’t cry, even just a little, over Alexis and former boss Ted’s farewell dinner in the café (c’mon, even Eugene Levy did). For nine seasons, NBC teased viewers of The Office with the “will they or won’t they” tension between Jim and Pam (spoiler alert: they would and they did).

Unlike these rom coms, IRL not all office romances have a happy ending, and even those that do can cause friction in the workplace. That’s why, when we conduct anti-harassment training for employers, we often caution trainees on the problems that workplace romances can create for employers and employees alike. That is not to say that workplace romances never work out. In discussing this article, some of our colleagues pointed out that they are happily married to former coworkers. Still, romance always involves some degree of risk, and those risks are heightened when the parties to a relationship are bound together by their livelihoods.

So what should employers do?

  • Consider a romantic relationships policy. Zero tolerance anti-fraternization policies are very hard to police and enforce. They can have the unintended effect of causing employees to hide their relationships. Instead, many employers opt for either a hybrid policy that permits relationships between co-workers but not supervisors and subordinates, or allows both types of relationships but sets ground rules for those relationships. Many of these romantic relationships policies require employees to disclose when they have begun a dating relationship with a colleague – Dunder Mifflin’s HR department got that much right. Such a policy should make clear that the participants’ consent is critical and request the participants to let HR know if and when the relationship ends. Had such a policy been in place in The Proposal, we would never have seen Betty White and “the baby maker”, but that’s why it’s fiction!
  • Professionalism must rule the day. Management and HR must make clear that during working time and in working areas, dating employees are expected to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner that does not interfere with their or others’ productivity. This includes any public displays of affection (so while highly entertaining, that’s a “no” to David’s “Simply the Best” dance for Patrick in Rose Apothecary).
  • Focus on power imbalances. The workplace relationships that carry the greatest risks for an organization and for those involved in the relationship are those that involve a power imbalance. Even if such a relationship remains happy and healthy for the immediate participants, it can create an opportunity for and the appearance of favoritism for the subordinate. (Even before the holiday party scene in Love Actually, everyone but wife Emma Thompson knew that assistant Mia had a thing for Alan Rickman’s Harry.) Employers should consider prohibiting employees from managing, supervising, or being involved in employment decisions affecting an individual with whom they are romantically or sexually involved.
  • Tailor your policies to the realities of your organization. For example, in a large organization, it may be feasible to eliminate potential conflicts of interest by transferring employees or changing reporting relationships. Small organizations may not have that luxury and may need to more closely monitor workplace relationships to ensure that they do not become problematic or abusive. Many small businesses may by necessity have a greater tolerance for workplace relationships, simply because they are a “family affair” run by married couples or non-married romantic partners.
  • Above all, ensure that you have a robust anti-harassment program in place. Make it clear that workplace harassment will not be tolerated and that engaging in a relationship with someone does not give them a right to engage in unwelcome inappropriate conduct that negatively affects someone at work. Demonstrate, by both words and actions, that complaints of harassment are taken seriously and that the organization will take appropriate corrective action when needed to protect its employees.
  • Consult your employment lawyer. Workplace relationships raise tricky legal and practical issues that could have severe consequences for your organization and your employees if not managed appropriately. A few minutes on the phone may help prevent major problems down the road.

And if you’re still looking for a Valentine’s Day movie recommendation? Well, even the 17th century had its share of workplace romances, deftly navigated by working woman Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos. Complete with a happy ending.