Workplace romances are nothing new, but remote and hybrid environments are giving rise to a new set of questions about what is appropriate behavior—and what crosses the line.
How employers can and should control for sexual harassment in remote, digital work contexts is one such question human-resources leaders say they are grappling with.
Video calls, slack channels and other forms of interpersonal communication among co-workers outside a traditional office space paradoxically create more opportunities for one-on-one interaction, said Mark Kluger, an attorney at law firm Kluger Healey.
“While such contact is not physical, a one-on-one video call without other sets of eyes that would be around [in] an in-office meeting can create opportunity for sexual harassment or at least allegations of such harassment,” he said.
These forms of communication could also result in more tangible evidence, such as recordings or chat transcripts, which could be used for prompt remedial action in case of transgressions or exoneration of improperly accused employees.
Even though there is room for consensual romance in the workplace, according to Mr. Kluger, there’s one hard-and-fast rule: A supervisor at any level cannot be permitted to engage in a romantic relationship with someone over whom they have supervisory authority.
“We can’t stop people from falling in love. But someone has got to move voluntarily or involuntarily out of the direct reporting position for their own sake and for the sake of others in the department that might feel—real or perceived—that sexual favoritism is the basis for employment decisions,” he said. While workplace relationships are bound to happen, leaders should encourage transparency and disclosure.
Weronika Niemczyk, chief people officer at software company Abbyy, however, finds that hybrid and remote setups make it harder for people to get into a relationship, as there are fewer opportunities for personal chats or to hangout after work. Ms. Niemczyk cautioned against allowing gossip to fester. “If people are talking about someone having a relationship with a colleague, and it becomes a topic of informal conversation, it’s only right that the HR professional speak to the individuals directly impacted and guide and support them in the situation,” she said.
As you consider ways to create or refine your workplace romance or sexual-harassment policies in light of new work environments, the following tips may be helpful.
- Focus on the core purpose. Although the nature of relationships may change as online and offline work structures evolve, at their core, workplace romance policies are meant to prevent individuals from benefiting from or being disadvantaged by these liaisons in a way that goes against organizational values. Therefore, according to Ms. Niemczyk, these policies should incorporate language to this effect and should also communicate clearly to employees what is permissible behavior and what isn’t.
- Include an impartial adviser. Mr. Kluger recommended that as part of its sexual-harassment policies, an organization designate someone (such as a board member) who is above the chief executive whom employees can privately access by cell phone in the event that there has been an unwanted romantic gesture from a senior manager.
- Specify the details of a “love contract.” Your workplace romance policy might spell out what it means for co-workers to be in a consensual relationship, such as refraining from public displays of affection and avoiding behavior that could make others uncomfortable. According to Mr. Kluger, this signed agreement also requires the involved parties to alert HR if and when the relationship ends.