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Sexual harassment and company policies against dating colleagues

Love and romance often bloom in unlikely places. And whether or not HR professionals want to admit it, relationships frequently start in the office. According to a Google Consumer Survey of adults ages 18 to 34, nearly 18 percent of married respondents said they had met their spouse at work.

There are, obviously, huge conflicts of interest that exist when high-level company employees date their subordinates (or vice versa). Dating between colleagues of equal status usually doesn't pose a problem until or unless a bad breakup occurs - at which point the risk of sexual harassment increases considerably. In light of this, should companies ban all inter-office relationships?

Although this sounds like the safest course of action, a blanket policy against dating could cause some difficult problems both for employers and employees. Some HR professionals would tell you that office relationships are going to happen regardless of company rules. If two colleagues date in secret and eventually break up in secret, neither partner has much protection if the other one decides to work out hurt feelings in the office.

If a former workplace romance ended, for instance, and the man decides he isn't finished with the relationship, he may begin engaging in behavior that constitutes regular harassment and sexual harassment. The woman in this case may feel that she is unable to report the behavior because she broke the company's rules against inter-office dating. Her job could be on the line.

For employees, the dangers of this scenario are obvious. No worker should be forced to endure sexual harassment, regardless of their previous relationship with the harasser.

But this scenario is also bad for employers. Sexual harassment is not just a legal liability issue. The existence of sexual harassment in a given workplace lowers both morale and productivity. Even if both workers involved in a former relationship are fired for violating the policy, companies spend far more money hiring and training replacements than they would spend retaining otherwise good employees.

So what's the solution to handling office romances? Many companies have chosen to require disclosure of relationships rather than prohibiting them. This allows the company to set expectations and reaffirm the company's policies against sexual harassment. At the same time, it allows employees to be open about their workplace romance (professionally, of course) and it provides some measure of protection against harassment in case the relationship later ends on bad terms.

Sexual harassment policies can be difficult for all involved. But if written and enforced carefully, they can truly create a better, more respectful workplace.

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