Navigating Workplace Romance as an Employee

Know your company's anti-harassment policies and HR requirements

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on August 11, 2023

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Many careers have been brought down in the post-MeToo era as long-disregarded sexual harassment claims are finally taken seriously.

It’s all probably making us wonder: What, exactly, is the law? What types of behaviors will be deemed actionable infractions? Is there conduct you engaged in a year ago that would get you fired today?

The short answer is yes.

An Evolving Work and Legal Landscape

On October 8, 2017, the date The New York Times published allegations of sexual assault regarding Harvey Weinstein, a fire was ignited. The enforcement of sexual harassment laws changed dramatically. A different standard of credibility took hold, which changed how the law is applied.

The #MeToo movement spurred people to reflect on their and others’ actions with greater scrutiny. But in many ways, rather than leading to increased clarity, this trend gave rise to the fear that any romantic overture or non-sexual compliment would be misconstrued—particularly in a work environment.

So, is it now off-limits to consider dating anyone you work with?

Understand What Constitutes Workplace Sexual Harassment

Fishing from the company pier is nothing new.

Since most people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, it’s natural that deeper connections will develop. One survey reports that a third of U.S. employees acknowledge either currently or previously having a romantic relationship with someone in their workplace—an uptick despite the rise in remote and hybrid work following the Covid-19 pandemic.

That said, there are some rules and standards to pay close attention to.

First, sexual harassment, which is a form of discrimination based on sex, establishes two types of offending behavior:

  • Unwelcome overtures, actions, or statements of a sexual nature; and
  • A collection of behaviors or statements that amount to a hostile work environment.

Both types of harassment are based on subjective and factually sensitive experiences. Therefore, it’s extremely important to get consent in any potential workplace dating relationship and make sure there is no power imbalance between dating parties.

In fact, there shouldn’t even be flirting between supervisors and their supervisees. Period.

Be Aware of Company Policies and Consult HR Professionals About Reporting Relationships

Some companies have incorporated new strategies and dating policies to ensure that the workplace remains a place for work.

For example, Facebook and Google both implemented what’s referred to as a “one-strike rule,” wherein an employee is allowed one overture toward another within the workplace (only if there is no power dynamic). Any answer short of an unequivocal yes is considered a rejection.

This type of romance policy addresses issues of perceived coercion and raises the bar on what constitutes consent. Still, it doesn’t provide guidance on how to navigate a consensual relationship that went awry or ended in a breakup.

Navigating The End of a Workplace Relationship and Seeking Legal Help

Failed office relationships can present a minefield that, if not handled properly, can lose you your job.

A recent survey found that 33 percent of unsuccessful office dating resulted in at least one person being terminated. No matter how you slice it, an office romance can pose a great risk for your career.

If you need additional guidance on workplace relationship issues beyond your human resources department, or feel that you were wrongfully terminated because of a work relationship, talk to a law firm or a knowledgeable employment law attorney with experience in workplace sexual harassment. 

For more information about this area, see our overviews on employment law for employees and sexual harassment.

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