When love and work collide

Aug. 26, 2015
In a workplace environment where people spend a lot of time together, sometimes friendships can turn into intimate personal relationships.

Rebecca Boartfield and Tim Twigg

In a workplace environment where people spend a lot of time together, sometimes friendships can turn into intimate personal relationships. While it could be a love that lasts forever, it could be one that lasts only a few weeks.

The blending of work and personal relationships can happen in many different ways-between coworkers, the dentist and an employee, or a vendor and an employee. Regardless of how the relationship comes about, personal relationships in the workplace can have adverse effects on the morale and productivity of a business, as well as on other employees.

Many think a good solution is adopting a no-tolerance policy regarding workplace romances. If that's your office, think again. In general, people have a right to do what they want on their own time, so enforcing this policy could violate someone's personal rights and is not recommended. What you can control and manage is how those personal relationships affect the work environment. To do this, you need to have some well-written office policies.

Personal problems-KEEP OUT!

Personal relationships can create personal problems that can become work-related problems. Issues between individuals that disrupt the workplace fall within an employer's rights to control. In other words, the problems are preventing work from getting done, causing others to be uncomfortable, negatively impacting patient care, and more. Thus, a good policy to have is one that prohibits employees from bringing personal problems to work. If they fail to adhere to the established policy, the employer can hold them accountable.

Employer, dentist, or supervisor with employees-NO WAY!

Nothing wreaks more havoc in a workplace than when a personal relationship develops between the employer, dentist, or supervisor and one of his or her employees. Due to the fact that a personal relationship with an employee can result in favoritism and preferential treatment (among other things), this type of relationship should not be condoned in the workplace. Not only should a policy ban these types of relationships, it should be clear that management will take action once they have knowledge that such a relationship exists. Obviously, the stickiest situation is when the dentist/owner/employer is in a personal relationship with an employee, even when there is a policy in place.

Solutions can range from the employee or supervisor being transferred to another department or position so that there can no longer be a supervisor/employee relationship, to one of the people losing his or her job if the relationship continues. Employers should not take these kinds of relationships lightly because of the potential negative business consequences.

Discrimination and harassment-NOT HERE!

Antidiscrimination and harassment policies should exist in every policy manual. When the employer learns that a personal relationship has formed, it is advisable to clarify the policies to the employees and/or supervisor to ensure everyone maintains a workplace free of both.

When the relationship is between two coworkers, the allegations can include harassment in terms of a "hostile and intimidating work environment." In this case, the rejected party may create situations at work that cause the former boyfriend/girlfriend or other team members to feel uncomfortable, (i.e., spreading nasty rumors, sending hate emails, or discussing the personal matters of the relationship.)

When a supervisor/coworker relationship exists, the allegations can be as serious as "quid pro quo" harassment. The employee who alleges this form of harassment often states that the relationship was "unwelcome," and he or she entered the relationship only because of a concern that the employee's job would be in jeopardy if he or she did not cooperate.

Love contract-WHY NOT?

If a personal relationship develops between coworkers, consider having the parties sign an agreement documenting that the relationship is truly consensual (sometimes referred to as a "love contract"). Ideally, the agreement includes a waiver releasing the employer from any claims of discrimination or harassment.


Romantic relationships in the workplace can easily result in serious legal and financial complications. There are no solutions that guarantee protection when it comes to personal relationships, especially when the relationship is between the employer and an employee. However, that shouldn't stop the employer from doing his or her due diligence to prevent such problems and to nip them in the bud if or when they occur.

Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen & Associates and Rebecca Boartfield is an HR compliance consultant. For more than 30 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with ever-changing and complex labor laws. To receive a complimentary copy of the company's quarterly newsletter or to learn more, call (800) 679-2760 or visit www.bentericksen.com.

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