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As employees are coming back to physical workplaces and humans in general are less socially distant than they’ve been a long time, cupid’s arrows are flying again, and that can mean headaches for HR.

A 2021 survey from SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, found that more than one-third (34 percent) of U.S. workers have been involved in or are currently involved in a workplace romance — up 7 percent from 2020.

Dealing with coworker relationships is never easy. Workplace romances can cause problems even when they are going well. And when breakups occur, the workplace can get ugly.

Watch for Favoritism

Relationships between supervisors and subordinates (which are never a good idea and should be discouraged or prohibited) may create the appearance of favoritism — or retaliation after the relationship ends.

Although favoritism is generally not unlawful, it can still cause strife in the workplace. It is natural to want to give the object of one’s affection plum assignments, but consider the effect on everyone else who is not the subject of the supervisor’s affection. Lawsuits have been filed because of what is viewed as “unfair treatment” in the form of favoritism. Rumors or complaints about favoritism should be addressed before the situation begins to affect morale (and by the time complaints surface, morale has probably been affected already).

Put a stop to post-breakup harassment

Once a relationship fizzles, any unwanted attention could be categorized as sexual harassment. It makes no difference if the relationship was consensual.

Unwanted attention is unwanted attention, and must be treated like any other sexual harassment complaint:

  • Investigate it,
  • Use discipline if needed and,
  • Separate the individuals if necessary.

Ideally, an employer can communicate expectations for these individuals to work together professionally and explain the consequences for failing to do so. They may have some animosity toward each other, but this is not the employer’s concern — only their conduct in the workplace is a concern.

If two people who have ended a romantic relationship can agree to get along and fulfill their job obligations, the problem should be resolved (and hopefully harsh feelings will fade over time).

If the problem persists, one or the other may have to be transferred to a different area of the company.

Selecting which employee is moved might be based on seniority, past performance, or whether one individual is making a greater effort to resolve the problem. One of the employees might even request a transfer.

In some cases, separation is not possible, and the employees will fail to work out their differences. Then, termination of one or the other might be necessary.

An investigation may determine that one employee is trying to resolve the conflict, but the other employee continues causing problems. In that case, selecting the correct person for termination shouldn’t be complicated.

In other cases, however, an employer will be unable to determine whether one or the other is behaving unreasonably (or might find that both are being unreasonable). The employer would still have the option to terminate them both, of course.