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4 immediate steps to take when an office romance blossoms

To meet that one special guy or gal. . . It’s the stuff dreams are made of. But when that love connection takes place within a workplace, it can be an employer’s worst nightmare. Couples that live happily ever after are manageable. But when a workplace romance ends in breakup, it usually creates big problems at work. As manager it’s your mission to protect your medical office against these problems.

As a Valentine’s Day gift to you, cherished subscriber, we’ll lay out four different strategies that have proven successful and show you how to implement each one at your own medical office.

The problem

A medical office’s control over an employee doesn’t normally extend to the employee’s love life. At the same time, when conducting the romance affects the workplace and the medical office’s business, it becomes an employment matter. This is most likely to happen when a relationship ends. So let’s concentrate on this aspect of workplace romance.

With most romantic relationships, the parties go their separate ways after breaking up. Rhett Butler walks out that door and Scarlett never sees him again. But just imagine if Rhett and Scarlett worked in the same medical office!

Unfortunately, lots of Rhetts and Scarletts do work side by side. And when their romance ends, the relationship doesn’t; it just enters a new and awkward phase. Unless one or both of the parties leave the medical office, they’ll probably keep bumping into each other day in and day out. At best, this can lead to tension; at worst, it can poison the work environment and give rise to sexual harassment and other legal claims against the medical office.

Example: Two employees who worked for the same city agency became romantically involved. Then, one day, she decided to break it off. He wasn’t so willing to let go. For weeks, he pursued her. When it became clear that he couldn’t woo her back, he turned nasty. And his nastiness spilled into the workplace and affected just about everybody in it. He bugged her co-workers; he spied on her at the office; and he even spoke to her supervisor and tried to get her fired. When the situation became intolerable, he was the one who ended up getting fired. He then sued the agency for wrongful dismissal. The court ruled that the employee’s behavior amounted to serious misconduct and dismissal for cause was warranted.

Sure, the agency won the case. But it probably wished it didn’t have to. Defending itself against the worker’s claim doubtlessly cost the agency a great deal of money, time and effort. The moral: Winning in litigation isn’t an effective risk management strategy for these kinds of situations.

The resolution

So what strategy should you follow?

Why you shouldn’t ban employees from dating co-workers

Before answering that question, let’s talk about what NOT to do. Historically, many medical offices and other employers have dealt with the workplace romance problem by banning dating between employees. This is a bad idea.

Why? First of all, imposing a blanket policy banning dating between employees is an unwarranted intrusion on privacy for which there’s no legal basis. An employer’s attempt to prohibit workplace romances can also lead to discrimination and other legal complaints.

The issue isn’t just about law. Stated simply, a no-romance policy is unworkable and just about impossible to enforce. Sociological trends show that the workplace has become the 21st century singles bar, where 1 in 5 meet their spouse. So, trying to stop the phenomenon at your medical office makes about as much sense as ordering the sun to set in the east and rise in the west.

At the end of the day, banning romance will succeed only in breeding resentment, harming morale and forcing employees to conduct their affairs on the sly. And clandestine romances are much harder to deal with than ones carried out in the open.

4 strategies you can use

Workplace romances clearly create problems. But don’t ban the romance; instead, deal directly with the problems you’re afraid the romances is going to create. There are 4 strategies you should use.

Strategy 1: Ban conflicts of interest

Establish a policy that spells out what behavior and actions associated with romantic relationships may constitute a conflict of interest that can hurt the medical office. Our recommendations:

  • Ban personal activities that conflict with an employee’s job duties and responsibilities. For example, exclude physicians from decisions involving pay, benefits, and promotions of nurses or administrative staff who they happen to be dating.
  • Ban behavior that can compromise the reputation of your medical office, physicians, and patients.
  • Make it clear that all employees—physicians, nurses, medical technicians, administrative staff, and others—must notify the medical office of the existence of any romantic relationships they have with their colleagues.
  • State that violation of this policy will result in discipline.

Strategy 2: Add dating rules to your code of conduct

Another appropriate method for addressing workplace romances is to directly address it in your code of conduct. List examples of appropriate and inappropriate forms of conduct. For example, ban the overt displays of affection and spending too much time socializing with one another to the extent it impinges on job duties. Require employees to keep their romantic squabbles and disputes a personal matter and not bring them into the workplace. The basic objective is to get the parties to behave in the workplace just the way they would if they weren’t romantically involved.

Strategy 3: Instruct your employees

Written policies aren’t always enough. Make sure your employees know what is expected and receive appropriate training on what behavior is—and isn’t—acceptable in the workplace. Training and instruction should flow naturally from the content of your conflict of interest and code of conduct policies.

Strategy 4: Have romantically involved employees sign a ‘love contract’

In recent years, some medical offices have begun using an innovative approach to regulate workplace romances: the “love contract,” i.e., a document signed by both dating employees in which the parties make certain acknowledgements and promises to the medical office and each other.

The simplest form of love contract is one where the parties acknowledge that their relationship is consensual and agree to follow the medical office’s policies and procedures on sexual harassment, personal conduct, and other matters. But other love contracts go further. For example, they:

  • Spell out which party will resign if the relationship turns sour;
  • Require the parties to agree to use an internal grievance process or go to arbitration to settle any disputes stemming from the relationship;
  • Ban the parties from suing the medical office or its management for anything in connection with the relationship; and/or
  • Make both parties promise that a future breakup won’t hurt their job performance.

How to use love contracts effectively

Like any other contract, the love contract must be properly administered to be effective. Here are some pointers:

Keep it simple. The term “contract” is actually a misnomer. A love contract is less contract than an acknowledgment that the romance is consensual and subject to the employment rules, guidelines, and policies of the medical office.

What good is an acknowledgment? First, it educates employees and puts them on notice that their relationship is subject to certain professional boundaries. This makes it more likely that they will honor these boundaries and keep their relationship out of the workplace. An acknowledgement can also serve as evidence that everyone knew what they were getting into if you must defend the firm down the line.

Use it sparingly. Don’t automatically pull out the love contract every time single employees have a drink or flirt with each other. “No employee wants to work in an Orwellian environment,” cautions one manager. “Save the contract for when there clearly is a romantic relationship and the situation poses risks to the business.” Appropriate situations for a love contract:

  • The relationship is between a superior and subordinate; or
  • The circumstances of workplace might generate some sort of conflict of interest—for example, when one party has a direct or indirect reporting relationship with the other, when one party can impact the work or job of another, or when the relationship between the two parties has a level of work dependency.

Conclusion

So, as Valentine’s Day approaches, make sure your medical office takes the right approach to love in the workplace. Yes, romance between coworkers does create complications; and, yes, it is an employer’s right and, in some cases, obligation to ensure that romantic relationships don’t harm the workplace environment or the practice, especially when those relationships end. But managing the potential consequences of romance at work requires subtlety, caution and, above all, a sense of reality. The key to success is to refrain from trying to stop the romance and concentrating your efforts on ensuring that both parties involved understand and adhere to professional limits in the way they conduct it.


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