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Office Relationships Losing Stigma, But Companies Still Nervous

As the old saying goes “you don’t dip your pen in the company ink.”  In other words, you shouldn’t get into a dating or sexual relationship with a co-worker.

But consider this: according to a recent Workplace Options survey, nearly 85% of 18-29 year olds would have a romantic relationship with a co-worker, compared to just over 35% for 30-46 year olds and about 30% of 47-66 year olds. Even more shocking is that 40% of those 18-29 year olds would date their supervisors. According to a CareerBuilder survey, interoffice dating has a fairly high success rate–of the 38% of people surveyed that dated a co-worker at least once, 31% went on to marry that co-worker!

Is this age-old adage becoming extinct?  If you believe the stats of new employees entering the workforce, it might seem so.  But a lot of companies don’t let the rank and file decide–they adopt policies that ban or limit workplace dating–all in the name of lowering liability.

Enforcing these policies can take their toll on a company. Just last month, Gary Friedman, the chief executive of Restoration Hardware, stepped down in the middle of the company’s public offering. The reason: an internal inquiry into his relationship with a 26-year-old female employee. Friedman was not married, so there was no affair. And the employee? She didn’t even work there anymore! Earlier this year, Best Buy’s chief executive, Brian Dunn, stepped down after an investigation by the board discovered he had shown “extremely poor judgment” with a 29-year-old female employee. A couple years ago, Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive, Mike Hurd, resigned amid accusations of falsifying expense reports to hide a personal relationship with an independent contractor.

As companies grow and add employees, you will often see signs of budding workplace relationships. This can be especially true in high-growth companies that demand long work hours and tend to hire more single employees. When your routine is work-sleep-work, going out to date does not seem like a real option for many. According to the CareerBuilder survey, some industries are more prone to inter-office dating than others. Hospitality, Financial Services, Transportation and Utilities, Information Technology, and Health Services all topped the list as having higher than average office dating.

As a business owner, you might ask: “Where is the legal issue?” or “What’s the best policy regarding workplace dating?”  While the answer to the first question is pretty simple, the answer to the latter is less obvious.

The legal issue is what I like to call the “amplification” of potential liability that always exists around the employer-employee relationship. There will foreseeably be claims of favoritism, or even discrimination or harassment…

Read more: Chas Rampenthal, Inc.

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