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Can you get away with an office romance in 2018? - HRM

By Alan J. McDonald


Happy Valentine’s Day! Although perhaps you should think twice before asking your colleague out on a date.

Office romance is not what it used to be. Just ask Barnaby Joyce, who’s alleged to have leveraged his position to get his mistress Vikki Campion a job in Senator Matt Canavan’s office in April 2017. Or remember John Neal, CEO of QBE, whose pay was docked by half a million dollars by the Board for not revealing that he was having an affair with his executive assistant. Love hurts.

QBE isn’t the only company getting tough on executive accountability. Some organisations are hedging their bets and creating stricter guidelines around office romance. Here are some of the more inventive examples.

One-strike rule

Several large firms, including Facebook and Google, have introduced what’s called a “one-strike rule” for office romances. This doesn’t ban office relationships per se, but instead tries to legislate flirtation.

The one-strike is applied at the point of one employee asking another out on a date. If the answer is anything less than a “yes”, then the company insists that be the end of the courtship.

“Ambiguous answers such as ‘I’m busy’ or ‘I can’t that night’ count as a no,” Heidi Swartz, global head of employment law at Facebook, explains to the Wall Street Journal.

The ostensible purpose of the rule is to prevent harassing flirtation, where an employee repeatedly subjects an uninterested colleague to attention. A problem with the rule is that flirtation is almost always less clear cut than a date request, and therefore the rule doesn’t cover all that much.

For instance, what if a colleague never asked you out but instead commented on your looks everyday? It could be very unwelcome but the offending party wouldn’t have breached the one-strike rule.

The other criticism is that like almost all work policies, it has more to do with the business’ bottom line than any genuine attempt to make employees’ lives better.

“The idea that employees are allowed one approach to a fellow worker appears to be more restrictive than any Victorian era code of conduct,” says McDonald Murholme managing director Alan McDonald.

”The apparently prudish policy is surely not to protect individual employees from sexual relationships but rather protect the company’s bottom line from monetary compensation from sexual harassment claims.”

Love contracts

Some US companies that want to prevent any and all such claims have implemented a policy requiring all dating employees to sign a “love contract”. Unlike a couple alerting HR to their relationship causing a potential conflict of interest – such as when a manager and their team member date – this is far more stringent.

An example document from the US based Association of Corporate Counsel can be found here (paywall). It seems almost designed to make employees resent their company. Anyone signing it would be agreeing to not “engage in any public displays of affection” and that their “relationship will not have a negative impact on work”.

The problem with love contracts is that their legal benefits are dubious (it wouldn’t be too difficult for employees to argue some form of coercion) and they also they smack of an over-bureaucratised, and selfish workplace.

It’s as if the organisation is not only inserting itself into an area where most people feel it doesn’t belong (personal romances), but also insisting that it’s the most important thing in that area. So introducing love contracts could harm the company’s relationship with existing and potential employees.

Reference: Can you get away with an office romance in 2018?, HRM Online, 13.02.18