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A manager's guide to managing office romance

Here are 10 practical tips for managers and HR folks looking to do a better job dealing with the inevitable workplace pairings. Minus the drama.
/ Source: Business Week

My husband and I snuck away for a no-kids weekend in Santa Fe this summer. We were horrified to realize back in May, around the time of our 19th anniversary, we hadn’t been away together without the kids since I was pregnant with Declan, who’ll start eighth grade next month. Michael and I met at work, 25 years ago. My employer had exactly no experience with workplace romance at that time, and in fact I left the company over my unease at being its HR chief while dating a fellow employee. Here are 10 practical tips for managers and HR folks looking to do a better job dealing with the inevitable workplace pairings. Minus the drama.

1. Accept it
People meet romantic partners at work every day, and rather than rant or fume about it, a smart manager will accept that reality. Work is a wonderful place to meet a mate or a summer fling; after all, how better to observe a person and verify that he or she is not crazy, violent, or otherwise unsuitable than to watch him or her in action at work? You can’t stop people from being attracted to one another, so keep a level head and a sense of humor about the whole thing.

2. Talk about it
Managers ask for trouble when they establish a subtle or not-so-subtle cultural norm that tells employees not to discuss social or romantic topics in the office. That’s a bad idea, because love-related tension or conflict in your midst is going to affect you whether it’s out in the open or under wraps. Don’t press your employees for details of their dating lives, but make it easy for them to talk to you about it if they’re seeing someone from your organization socially.

3. Understand sexual harassment
On the topic of sexual harassment, managers and organizations vary in their perspectives, from fanatical vigilance (lest some worker bee get too cozy with some other bee) to utter disregard. Don’t leave your own and your team’s sexual harassment education to chance. Get the scoop on what constitutes sexual harassment. (Quick course: There are two basic forms, when sexual involvement is inappropriately tied up with job requirements or privileges, or when a hostile work environment exists — e.g., pinup-girl calendars displayed on bulletin boards, sexual discussions that make people uncomfortable, etc.) Your HR department and/or legal folks will be happy to bring you up to date and answer your questions, I predict.

Businessweek: Why office romance is on the wane

4. Don’t snoop or pry
Your team members are entitled to their privacy. Don’t become (or allow a teammate to become) an unappointed dating-status officer. Give your colleagues every opportunity to let you know if they’re dating someone in the company and unit, but don’t ask, "So, are you and Chris an item, or what’s the scoop?" Unless you have HR’s blessing and an immediate, pressing business need for this information, stay mum.

5. Ditch the love contracts
It sounds like a device from a bad rom-com, but it’s real. A few years ago, some employers started requiring employees to execute Love Contracts if they (the employees) were dating other people at work. Essentially, you’d be told that if you and a fellow employee were to become romantically involved (although no one ever quite defined that term), you were required to sign forms confirming that relationship. This absurd and insulting practice was supposed to reduce sexual harassment claims, because you’d be able to prove that people were dating voluntarily. But these contracts left too many gray areas. Of course, they never thought of using "I Had a Wild Dream About Tony from Shipping" contracts, "Which Form Do I Fill Out If Natalie and I Had Drinks Together After Work and Things Got Out of Hand?" contracts, or "I’ve Had a Huge Crush on Hector for Years But Haven’t Worked Up the Courage to Speak to Him" contracts. If your organization has this idiotic policy in place, band together with your fellow managers and lobby for repeal.

6. Set boundaries
No, I’m not talking about writing another policy. Most employers have far too many policies in place already. I’m talking about human communication, like, "Hey Corinne, can I ask you a small thing? Can you and Leon be really careful on the PDA front, and if in doubt err on the conservative side? We can’t kiss and snuggle here in the office. It’s just one of those things some people are uncomfortable with, so if you don’t mind, I’d be very grateful." Don’t make a big deal about it, but let your dating-someone-at-work employees know that it’s best to restrict the social and amorous activities to other venues.

7. Don’t be rigid
These are wiggly times we’re living in. I’ve worked in offices where half the twenty-somethings in the place were actively hooking up with the other half at any given time. In that sort of ecosystem, can we realistically say, "Any employee who dates a co-worker will be asked to transfer departments?" What does "dating" even mean in 2011? Rather than try to address the inevitable workplace pairings with a policy, talk about the topic forthrightly and handle situations according to the specific needs of the couple, their managers, and the employer.

8. Set the standard
In my experience leading teams, any disruption caused to a work group by virtue of dating within the group was dwarfed by the disruption a breakup of said couple produced. If the drama level in your shop rises because Ralph and Melanie called it quits, signal a timeout. Talk to your employee one on one, in private. "Melanie," you’ll say, "I’m sorry for the stress you’re experiencing outside of work as I understand it, but we can’t have that situation showing up here. You can’t be short with Ralph, you can’t bring that energy to work, and you can’t bring your colleagues into the drama. We’re all co-workers, and we’re expected to be professional with one another no matter what history has unfolded." Make sure Ralph gets the same message. Zero tolerance is a great standard for couples-drama at work.

9. Be consistent
We’d be naïve or toady-like if we didn’t mention that some employers hold the rank-and-filers to a different measure vis-à-vis workplace liaisons than they hold the top brass to. If you have that problem in your workplace, it’s an unflattering headline waiting to happen. If you’re running HR or Legal, address any C-suite dalliances and potential harassment issues arising therefrom. (If you’re not in one of those roles, send this article to the person who is.) You can’t expect your firm’s Joes and Janes to hew to a higher standard than your executives do.

10. Keep listening
I talked to a New York attorney who told me his firm took the video cameras out of the stairwells, because of all the X-rated action they were picking up late at night. Undoubtedly those associates work hard and deserve some kind of an outlet, but on-premises sex is never permissible. Make it easy for your employees to report anything inappropriate that could put your company at risk. An ethics hot line is a great way to open this back channel, and if you install one, make sure the number is communicated at saturation level and available 24×7. Keep your eyes and ears open, so that employees in tricky situations always have a confidential way to sound the alarm.

Your employees are human beings, and some of them will mix it up romantically with others of them at some point in time. That’s no reason to panic. If I tabulated the hours I’ve spent mooning over workplace crushes in my life, I’d have quite a tally. (Please don’t tell my husband, O.K.?)