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Ask Aliya: Should Companies Ban Office Romances?

“Ask Aliya” is a column for lawyers who are the first legal hire at their company and need advice from an in-house lawyer who has been there before. Aliya Ramji was the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc., a network used by more than one million healthcare professionals to share cases and collaborate. She is now a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, where she offers guidance on in-house law and startup businesses. To have your legal questions for startups answered, email [email protected] with "Ask Aliya" in the subject line.

Dear Aliya,

As the only in-house counsel at my company, I have been tasked with working with our human resources team to formalize our HR policies. Our CEO wants to forbid interoffice romance. The problem is that two of my colleagues are seriously dating. What should I do?

Forbidden Romance

Dear Forbidden Romance,

Workplace romances are more common than we think. According to a survey, 52 percent of employees have engaged in a romantic relationship with a colleague. Employees spend more than half of their waking hours at work and coworkers often have shared interests. Therefore, it is not uncommon to fall in love at work.

However, even the best of office romances can be disruptive to an organization. Possible disruption can range from minor workplace gossip to sexual harassment and serious workplace disharmony. A company also risks losing valuable employees if a relationship ends.

It is also important to be aware that individuals engaging in workplace romances may face reputational risks, as their professionalism may be called into question by colleagues. It is understandable that your CEO may want to completely forbid interoffice romance, but there are options.

When formalizing HR policies, there is a fine line between ensuring that employees in romantic relationships remain productive and intruding in their private lives. Companies may want to create boundaries for interoffice romance, but blanket bans are invasive and patronizing.

Instead of policing workplace romances, your HR policies can focus on creating a positive work environment and comment on discretion and employee conduct during working hours. Companies such as Facebook have implemented policies to guide workplace behaviour rather than to prohibit dating. For example, an employee can only ask a colleague out once, and that colleague must be someone you have met.

Your HR policy may also consider any apparent or actual conflict of interest that may result from romantic relationships. In situations where there is an imbalance of power or a potential conflict of interest, alternative work arrangements should be considered.

As a general rule, it is best for your organization to develop a disclosure policy with regard to the existence of a romantic relationship within an employee’s chain of command. The best course of action in this situation is to determine if there is a conflict of interest, assign a new supervisor, or reassign the direct report to another team, if feasible.

As you create HR policies for interoffice relationships, you will also want to revise your sexual harassment policies. Employees should understand what constitutes sexual harassment and any continuous unwanted attention will not be tolerated.

Employees should also be notified as to how and to whom they can voice their concerns. It is important to let your employees know what is and is not appropriate in the workplace and how you will address complaints. Forbidding workplace relationships will only push employees to date in secret. Your organization will be better served if you create reasonable policies that are fair and transparent. The best course of action is to take a balanced approach with respect to the needs of your employees and workplace productivity.

Your colleagues who are seriously dating will continue to date with or without your CEO’s approval. Aim to create the most positive work environment for them while assessing the situation to determine if there should be any reporting structure changes.

Good luck!


About the Author

Aliya RamjiAliya Ramji was previously the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc. Presently, she is a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, where she offers guidance on in-house law and startup businesses. She also was a 2016 recipient of ACC’s Top 10 30-Somethings.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.