Last month American Apparel, the company where ousted founder Dov Charney was more than once accused of sexual improprieties, decided to update its rules on workplace relationships. In January, after Paula Schneider was named to the CEO job, the company issued a new code of conduct that was roughly four times as long as its previous code. It banned personal relationships between managers and subordinates. And it required coworkers to report their romance to H.R. if one had any "perceived or actual influence" over the other.
In an era when the lines between our personal and professional lives have blurred — when we're Facebook friends with our boss and spend more time at work than anywhere else — it would be natural to think the stigma over office hook-ups has lessened. And it has, to some extent, if the relationship involves people who are truly peers.
But if it involves a manager or someone else with disproportionate power? Well, then the trend is moving in the other direction.
Reports show that more and more companies are instituting policies about workplace romance. In a 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 42 percent of the 380 H.R. professionals canvassed said they have written or verbal policies in place — a figure that has more than doubled since 2005.
And that may even be a conservative estimate. In a survey released last week by the Employment Law Alliance, 72 percent of the attorneys who responded said their corporate clients address office relationships in policies or employee handbooks. Meanwhile, Garry Mathiason, a senior partner with the global employment law firm Littler Mendelson, says the prevalence of office romance policies among his firm's clients is likely over 90 percent. "The real issue is what the policy says," Mathiason noted.
According to the SHRM study, far more policies have started to spell out that relationships between managers and subordinates are forbidden. The first year SHRM ran the survey, in 2001, just 64 percent of H.R. folks with policies said that boss-employee relationships were not allowed. By 2013, that had grown to 99 percent. Similarly, just 12 percent made explicit that relationships between employees of a significant rank difference weren't permitted in 2001; by 2013, that figure was 45 percent.
"It leads into the possibility of discrimination and appearance of favoritism," said Lisa Orndorff, SHRM's manager of employee relations and engagement (and no, they don't mean those kinds of relations or engagement). "Even if a supervisor is cleaner than a whistle, there could still be that perception."
According to the survey, one in four employees said they have or have had a romantic relationship at work.
Unsurprisingly, the big reason companies are laying down the law on such liaisons between managers and employees is out of a legal concern: Big sexual harassment verdicts over the past decade have more companies running scared. The total number of sexual harassment charges has actually been declining, says Robin Shea, a partner at Constangy, Brooks & Smith in Winston-Salem, N.C., but "blockbuster jury verdicts" have still caught companies' attention.
"The ones that have come out are pretty alarming," Shea said. In 2011, for instance, UBS Financial Services lost a jury verdict of more than $10 million in a sexual harassment case.
While legal concerns may be driving companies to update their policies, other factors are having an effect, too — whether on the policies themselves or on how managers think about relationships between employees. In an age of social media and 24/7 access to technology, it can be easier for the boss to find out about your workplace romance. Technology can also make it easier to start that relationship in the first place.
In the recent survey by the Employment Law Alliance, 81 percent of employment lawyers said technology had a moderate to major impact on personal office relationships. Long gone, after all, are the days when employees had to find a colleague's home number to contact them after hours. Now it's easy to text and email coworkers late at night after you've had a few drinks, or to befriend each other on Facebook only to realize you like the same teams and TV shows, or to see personal photos of theirs on any number of social media platforms.
"On Facebook, I might see pictures of you on the beach in a bathing suit and think you’re attractive," said Sean Horan, an assistant professor at Texas State University who has studied workplace relationships. "Technology is a medium that reduces uncertainty. And technology has certainly not hurt workplace romance."
As a result, more employers realize that while they may try to prevent relationships that could lead to legal concerns, they also don't have the level of control they once did, says Adam Gersh, an employment lawyer at Flaster/Greenberg in Cherry Hill, N.J. "Every policy is going to have unintended consequences," he said. "It's about trying to manage those unintended consequences so that you’re getting some of the defensive protective measures you want without driving away your talent."
That's why employment lawyers say blanket policies against workplace dating are not as common. Not only are absolute bans nearly impossible to enforce, says Clarence Belnavis, a partner at Fisher & Phillips, but they can put companies in the position of having to police dating between — and therefore make tough decisions on — two talented peers.
"I have clients who come to me and say our talent pool is narrow, or we're unique in what we do, and people are just going to date in the workplace," Belnavis said. "What I don't need is an archaic policy that bans it all. They used to be fairly formal and rigid, now they're more relaxed."
Indeed, SHRM's survey shows that while more H.R. rulebooks may be trying to prohibit relationships between managers and their underlings, fewer appear to be concerned about dating between peers. In 2001, their survey showed that 31 percent of respondents didn't permit dating between colleagues in the same department who have different supervisors. In 2013, that figure was just 22 percent. "It looks like employers have eased up on the reins on that," Orndorff said.
Still, all the concern about what the employee handbook does and doesn't dictate won't matter much if workers are unaware of it. Many employers ask, for instance, that relationships be reported. Yet often employees simply don't know that their company rulebook says so, even at a time when sexual harassment training is commonplace.
An online survey released Thursday by the career site Vault.com found that 43 percent of respondents don't know if their company even has a policy about intra-office relationships. And in response to another question, 35 percent said they weren't sure what the company's general attitude was toward office romance.