How to Regulate Workplace Romance in Your Lab
Labs and other companies need a proactive strategy for dealing with romance and fraternization between employees.
Although somewhat dampened by telework and sexual harassment concerns, the workplace romance is still very much a thing, with one in three surveyed employees recently telling the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that they have been or currently are romantically involved with a co-worker.1 While love is a blessing in just about any other setting, it can be a curse when it happens at work. It’s apt to mar judgment, professionalism, fairness, and/or the perception of fairness in how HR decisions are made. It can be an even bigger nightmare when work couples quarrel or split up.
Given their druthers, most employers would prefer that employees concentrate on the job while at work and romance when they go home. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Consequently, companies, including labs, need a proactive strategy for dealing with romance and fraternization between employees. Here are three approaches to consider.
Workplace Romance and Employment Law
An employer’s authority over employees doesn’t normally extend to an employee’s love life. After all, romance is a profoundly personal affair. However, it becomes an employment matter when it affects the workplace and business operations. This is most likely to happen when a relationship ends. So, let’s concentrate on this aspect of workplace romance.
When couples break up, they generally go their separate ways. Rhett walks out that door and Scarlett never sees him again. But what if Rhett and Scarlett worked in the same medical lab? Unfortunately, lots of Rhetts and Scarletts do work side by side. And when their romance ends, the relationship doesn’t; it just enters a new and awkward phase, one that’s likely to have unpleasant repercussions for not only the couple but everybody they work with.
Example: Employees working for the same city agency become romantically involved. Things go sour and she wants to break up; but he doesn’t. Refusing to take NO for an answer, he tries to woo her back. But the strategy fails, and things get nasty in a way that affects others at the workplace. He bugs her co-workers; he spies on her at the office; and he tries to persuade her supervisor to fire her. Eventually, he’s the one who gets the ax for creating an intolerable work environment. He sues for wrongful dismissal but the court rules that he deserved to be fired and tosses the case.
Sure, the employer won the case. But the entire fiasco must have left deep scars, not to mention hefty legal bills. Bottom Line: Avoiding litigation is far preferable to prevailing in it.
The Case Against Banning Workplace Romances
Banning employees from becoming romantically involved with their colleagues seems like the obvious solution. In fact, this has historically been the strategy of choice for most employers. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work.
First of all, imposing a blanket policy banning dating between employees is an unwarranted intrusion on privacy for which there’s no legal basis. An employer’s attempt to prohibit workplace romances can also lead to discrimination and other legal complaints.
It’s not just a legal issue. As a practical matter, a no-romance policy is unworkable and just about impossible to enforce. Sociological trends show that the workplace has become the 21st century singles bar, where one in five people meet their spouse.2 So, trying to stop the phenomenon in your lab makes about as much sense as ordering the sun to set in the east and rise in the west. All you’re likely to do is breed resentment, harm morale, and force employees to conduct their affairs on the sly. And clandestine romances are often much harder to deal with than overt ones. Here are three alternatives to consider:
Strategy 1: Ban Conflicts of Interest
Implement a policy spelling out what behavior and actions associated with romantic relationships may constitute a conflict of interest that can hurt your lab.3 Best practices:
- Ban personal activities that conflict with an employee’s job duties and responsibilities, such as dating a person whose job performance they’re in charge of reviewing;
- Ban behavior that can compromise the reputation of your lab, physicians, and patients; and
- Require all staff, including physicians, nurses, lab technicians, administrators, etc., to notify HR of any romantic relationships they have with their colleagues.
Strategy 2: Implement Workplace Romance and Fraternization Policy
Directly address workplace romance in your lab’s code of conduct, such as via a workplace romance and fraternization policy.4 The basic objective: Require employees who are romantically involved with a colleague to behave in the workplace just the way they would if they weren’t romantically involved. List examples of appropriate and inappropriate forms of conduct. For example, ban overt displays of affection and spending too much time socializing with one another to the extent it impinges on job duties. Require employees to keep their romantic squabbles and disputes private and keep them out of the workplace.
Make sure lab employees know what’s expected and receive appropriate training on what behavior is—and isn’t—acceptable in the workplace. Training and instruction should flow naturally from the content of your conflict of interest and code of conduct policies.
Strategy 3: Have Romantically Involved Employees Sign a ‘Love Contract’
In recent years, many employers have had success following an innovative approach to regulating workplace romances: the “love contract,” i.e., a document signed by both dating employees in which the parties make certain acknowledgements and promises to HR and/or the medical office or lab and to each other.5 Under the simplest form of love contract, the parties acknowledge that their relationship is consensual and they agree to follow the lab’s policies and procedures on sexual harassment, personal conduct, and other matters.
But other love contracts go further. For example, they:
- Spell out which party will resign if the relationship turns sour;
- Require the parties to agree to use an internal grievance process or go to arbitration to settle any disputes stemming from the relationship;
- Ban the parties from suing the lab or its management for anything in connection with the relationship; and/or
- Make both parties promise that a future break-up won’t hurt their job performance.
Takeaway: How to Use Love Contracts Effectively
The term “contract” is actually a misnomer. A love contract is less a contract than an acknowledgment that the romance is consensual and subject to the employment rules, guidelines, and policies of the medical office or lab. Acknowledgement is significant because it educates employees and puts them on notice that their relationship is subject to certain professional boundaries, making it more likely that they honor those boundaries and keep their relationship out of the workplace. An acknowledgement can also serve as evidence that everyone knew what they were getting into if you must defend the firm down the line.
Use the love contract sparingly and only in situations that could pose significant problems for your lab, such as when the relationship is between a superior and subordinate, or the romance could create a major conflict of interest.
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