In this era of increased reported sexual harassment cases, heightened by the #MeToo movement, firms need to be proactive in handling romance in the workplace. Google, one of the largest companies in the world, was caught up in the middle of a storm last year when it was revealed that it paid out $90m to an executive accused of sexual misconduct. In retaliation to this, roughly 20,000 workers walked out of the corporation’s offices across 50 cities. Due to the protests, Sundar Pichai, CEO of the tech firm, announced some changes- policies like forced arbitration that has pushed employee complaints into secretive hearings, had become optional.
Many Nigerian firms do not have a policy on workplace romance, and are very prone to situations like this, especially when the case turns to harassment and it becomes against a lady. Now, even with Google having company rules like strongly discouraging employees from involving themselves in relationships with colleagues that they manage or report to, and providing regular training to executives to address this topic, they still ended up getting the short end of the stick. So, how should employers handle romance at the office?
Acknowledge that it happens
With the conservative culture of the Nigerian society, the idea of a relationship existing between two co-workers is not taken seriously. A number of companies fail to acknowledge it in its HR documentations, despite such romance being much popular than people care to believe. In a 2017 SHRM survey, 57% of individuals that responded admitted that they have engaged in a romantic relationship at work at some point, with 55% of HR professionals saying that marriage was the likeliest outcome of the office relationships they experienced. Despite all this, only 42% of companies have developed a formal, written, workplace romance policy. In Nigeria, not only are there more firms without such policy, the ones that do acknowledge it have a very concise plan, that in most occasions, just outrightly bans it from occurring.
Don’t forbid workplace romance without caveats
In any situation that a firm deems it fit to officially prohibit relationships at the office, it always ends up being counter-intuitive. Employees will find a way to keep it secret. They will be romantically involved one way or the other. Same-level relationships should be permitted as long as both partners keep their personal lives personal, act professional at work, and neither of them is in a supervisory role.
What should be done is to ban supervisor-subordinate relationships, due to the potential conflict and legal repercussions that could arise. No employee should be permitted to date his/her direct manager, as conflicts of interest would arise between their personal and professional lives. Any promotion or compliment that comes from the manager to the colleague they are in relationship with would be interpreted by others as unfair treatment and this could cause a lot of friction between workers. Penalties should be given to defaulters.
In the scenario that these two become upfront to the HR officer about it, the best thing that can be done is to move one of the partners to another department, and if this cannot be done, this should be communicated to them whilst being advised to call it off else penalties occur.
Create/review policies on workplace romances
The era of innocently thinking two individuals who broke up after a bad relationship and still work together would remain professional without some laid-down regulations, is over. Be proactive and create or review the company’s stance on romance in the workplace (including, consent and sexual harassment), and then share it to every single member of staff. Moreso, employees should be provided the opportunity and privacy to disclose any relationships that arise with the HR officer.
It is better being protected by law than being open to suits that may arise. For example, rules on Public Display on Affection (PDA) and consent should be explicitly written down. The company does not want to have one of its best employees being embroiled in a rape scandal because he/she did not understand consent. In fact, companies like Google and Facebook have adopted a one-chance strategy as a rule for their employees, wherein they are only allowed to ask their co-workers on dates only once, ever. This is to prevent accusations of harassment. Whilst a one-time dating ask is not feasible in the Nigerian setting, especially given how people feel about saying “yes” on the first time being asked out. Develop policies that are in-tune with the society and can prevent any cantankerous reactions that could occur.
Train Human Resources (HR) managers regularly
The HR manager/officer is in charge of handling relationships in the workplace, and as such, they should be provided regular and adequate training in conflict resolution and office romance. They would be the ones to explain the firm’s stand on consent and PDA to the other staff, and what is and isn’t acceptable workplace behavior. They should also mediate after break-ups to create a professional working relationship post-dissolution between both parties. In most cases that graduated from romance to sexual harassment/assault, the accuser always believed that the sexual activity was consensual. This is why it is important to nip it in the bud.