Companies are revisiting their in-office protocols — including policies on dating co-workers — as more workers are flooding back to the office.
After so long working from home, young workers could be going to the office for the first time; others may return with a hazy view on what their company’s policy may be on dating co-workers, and whether they’re required to disclose it to human resources.
High-level execs have recently faced consequences over their in-office romances. Over the last week, BP’s CEO abruptly resigned after news around his relationships with a subordinate surfaced, and Cboe Global Markets’ CEO resigned after failing to disclose personal relationships with colleagues.
As the RTO movement continues, experts say it’s important to rethink these protocols and share them with employees.
“We have returned to office for some folks, which might just mean return to visibility,” said Roxanne Petraeus, CEO of HR compliance training company Ethena. “When we’re back in an office environment, where there are things that combine social, work, and maybe an alcohol situation [like Happy Hours], that’s usually the moment where things that were happening that were discreet become a little bit less discreet.”
Petraeus says leaders should be cognizant of two areas: policy and disclosure. “Really thoughtful companies are using RTO as an opportunity to remind us what policies are,” said Petraeus. “We’re just rusty. If you think of company culture like a muscle that has to be maintained, CEOs and people leaders are recognizing, ‘hey, I need to continuously remind folks what the norms are.’”
That can be done during company all-hands or in a company-wide newsletter. Petraeus says that repetition of the policies are especially important to create an evergreen push. Hope Weatherford, global head of people at recruiting management platform Fountain, agrees. She suggests rolling it into the rest of the reminders for returning to the office.
“As you go back into the office, it’s a great reminder to have conversations around company conduct, but also highlighting the relationship piece of it as well,” said Weatherford. “It doesn’t have to be super HR-esque. It could be something fun, like a silly video that says ‘hey don’t leave your dirty dishes in the sink or your lunch in the fridge for days.’ And include personal relationships in that. People might have different boundaries when they return to the office, so it’s helpful to have guidelines and pointers around that.”
And then on the side of disclosure, it can be awkward to go to a leader and say: “FYI me and this person are dating.” That’s why it’s important for HR to be empathetic and approachable.
“You don’t want an HR team that are robots or scary,” said Weatherford. “I think a big part of it is being open and understanding and always leading with empathy.”
But it goes beyond that too.
“I think about removing any barrier between a person and a thing they don’t want to do,” said Petraeus. “The best companies think about all channels.”
That’s why she suggests making multiple channels available for employees looking to disclose this information. That can look like telling a great manager or saying it over Slack if they’re more comfortable doing that first. Additionally, Ethena has an anonymous hotline, which empowers employees and managers to address and report incidents, which can include dating.
“It could be something like ‘I was at the offsite and noticed that the COO and new intern left together, I don’t know if anything was happening, but it looked really weird and I wanted to share it,’” said Petraeus. “On the HR side, then you can see a bunch of different data points if there are some. For example, if three other people at the offsite said something along the same lines.”
Hopefully it doesn’t amount to an investigation, but if it does, Weatherford says it’s best to know where to go from there. It can be confusing to navigate, but her first suggestion is to take action right away and begin by asking the right questions and documenting everything along the way.
“Things can get very heated and very emotional but you need to be protecting your business as well,” said Weatherford.
Once a decision is made on how to move forward, communicate it back to the parties involved, and then to the rest of the company if it impacts them at large. In the examples mentioned earlier, the CEOs names are shared, but none of their subordinates. That’s important.
“If you’re telling the rest of the employees or the media, it has to be set up in a way that protects certain things,” said Weatherford. “It depends case to case and your company size, shape, and stage.”