Now, laissez-faire is gone. "We don't say you can't date; we don't say that it's against the rules," says Bob Perrin, Belvac director of human resources. "What we do say is that if it affects the company or the performance of the employees... we give them 90 days to decide which one will leave." Now, Belvac doesn't hire relatives of current employees. If two employees decide to marry, one must go; if they can't decide themselves which will leave, management decides for them.
Belvac is one of just 10 percent of companies that have a written policy governing workplace dating and romance. According to a February survey of 617 human resource executives by the Society for Human Resource Management, 72 percent of companies have no policy at all for interpersonal relationships on the job, while 14 percent foster a "culture" (but no written policy) that discourages such relationships. Though awareness of sexual harassment has become acute and, some would argue, even overbearing, the more innocent but no less problematic issue of workplace romance remains largely ignored.
H.R. professionals generally agree that, if your company already has a strong, well-disseminated sexual harassment policy in place, the best policy on workplace romance is no policy at all. "My recommendation would be to stay out of their lives until or unless it becomes a problem in the workplace, and then you deal with it individually as a performance problem, or it falls under your sexual harassment policy," says Beverly R. Davis, owner of Davis HR Consulting in San Diego. Trying to arbitrate the myriad of personal relationships that can blossom on the job is a Sisyphean task. "You get into gray areas," Davis says. "Written regulations can only go so far."
You run other risks by writing detailed regulations on office dating. "If you start legislating office romances and workplace dating, you're sending out a message that you're a pretty uptight employer," says Barry K. Lawrence, spokesman at the Society for Human Resource Management. Your company's culture should match closely the formal or informal policy you enforce. A firm trying to paint itself as "worker-friendly" should avoid Draconian restrictions that might drive away otherwise promising recruits. "You don't want to trade one problem for a worse problem," Lawrence says.
Still, some intimate relationships-such as those between supervisors and subordinates-skirt close enough to sexual harassment to merit scrutiny or even prohibition. Employees must feel free to voice their legitimate feelings about any relationships both to the couple and to management. If either balks, you have a problem, either with the couple, or with your managers.
Shirley T. Deen, owner of Human Resources Trainers & Consultants in Evington, Va., suggests the standard: "If it is something that you would expect from a reasonable person in a professional environment, it's probably OK. If it's somebody who is not necessarily a professional, we usually tell them to ask themselves, 'What would your mother think?'."
If you insist on writing a policy, the experts advise running it by a lawyer. Then, distribute it widely and repeatedly among your employees. In formulating the policy and answering inevitable employee questions, SHRM's Lawrence suggests you also be prepared to answer: how "dating" is defined; how marriages and same-sex relationships will be treated; whether relationships will be prohibited or if managers must simply be notified; how supervisor-subordinate relationships will be affected; if the policy will be enforced equally on management; and what enforcement means will be employed.