PROACTIVE PRACTICE MANAGEMENT
 
What is the General Trend With Regard to Policies on Office Romances?

The general trend, in the past five to ten years, is for large companies to view office romances with a more lenient eye. The Employers Council reports that only 25% of companies nationwide have some sort of policy regarding workplace "relationships."

And, let's face it…having a policy prohibiting office romances won't stop love. Also, if a dentist did choose to initiate a policy prohibiting office romances, how is this relationship defined? Outside of the office, how reasonable is it to assume that this could even possibly be monitored and followed up on? The ideal office setting is one where everyone is amicable, willing to go above and beyond to lend assistance where needed.

This friendship may continue outside the office setting. Often, colleagues get together for social time outside the office, and this is considered friendship. Where does a boss draw the line on friendly gatherings versus dating? The ramifications of the inquiry could easily bring on a sexual harassment lawsuit…
"So, you spent the night at {you-know-who's} house?" (This line of questioning could be interpreted as a probing question regarding intimate relations and breach of privacy). "Yes, {you-know-who} was the designated driver, and I slept on the couch. What are you implying?"

Office romances are inevitable. It is easy to understand how such relationships develop; people spend a majority of their waking hours during the week at their job working side-by-side with others. Not only is there a common background and interest (workplace and skill sets), there is a lot of time spent getting to know each other in a non-threatening environment. The interested party has an idea of what the person is like after spending so many hours together. It is a wonderful feeling to find a soul mate so conveniently, no more searching. No more bar hopping or church single-socials, no more expensive dating services or Internet chat rooms. Ahh, bliss. As the saying goes, love can be blind. And blind it is in that there is much more involved regarding the work environment. It would be a wonderful thing if an office relationship came without hitches, but the hitches are aplenty, and they are called: additional fellow office workers; career advancements; job reviews; job requirements; terminations; rivalry; competition; jealousy; favoritism…to name a few.

Whenever advancement occurs, co-workers of equal status will try to determine why; "Why him/her and not me?" If there is a known "relationship" in the office, career advancement is even more carefully scrutinized. If the significant other was promoted, there is the risk of blame, "We know how he/she got that job!" The fallout from these thoughts and emotions causes less respect toward the person in the new job, as well as jealousy and resentment. It will be more difficult for the significant other to fulfill this new role to its full potential.

On the other hand, if a colleague of equal status was promoted, and not the significant other, jealousy and resentment may also arise. There will always be the internal office struggle regarding ulterior motives. Was an advancement based on a relationship, was the advancement of a colleague based on merit, or even, was the advancement of a co-worker based instead of the significant other due to a love squabble outside the office? In any of these scenarios, resentment and jealousy can easily arise within the office, and these emotions can easily be transferred into a case of sexual harassment/sexual discrimination.

Since office romances do occur, the best option for a dentist is to have an understanding of how people work together and how human emotions and relationships develop when people work in close proximity. It is also advisable to have a strong, enforceable policy prohibiting sexual harassment/sexual discrimination. This policy should be contained in the office's Policy Manual. And, as we all know, a signed acknowledgement form stating the employee has read and understands the office's policies should be included in each employee's personnel file. The policy should be explicit regarding what is considered sexual harassment/discrimination, and the ramifications of violating the policy; the employee is subject to disciplinary action including termination.

Below is a copy of the sexual harassment section that is included in the office manual of dentists that I provide consulting services for. It would be wise to check your policy for completeness, and have your employees sign the policy immediately if they haven't already done so.

Sexual Harassment
The employer is committed to providing a work environment free of discrimination. In keeping with this commitment, the employer maintains a strict policy prohibiting sexual harassment. This policy applies to all employer agents and employees, including management. Sexual harassment includes: flirtations, touching, propositions, verbal abuse of a sexual nature, graphic or suggestive comments about an individual's dress or body or actual or perceived sexual orientation, the display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures, including nude photographs.

Sexual harassment also includes, but is not limited to unwanted sexual advances and requests for sexual favors where either (1) submission to such conduct is made an explicit or implicit term or condition of employment; (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Employees who violate this policy are subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal.

Any incident of harassment, including work-related harassment between employees, patients, or any other persons, should be reported immediately to the employer and/or to the designated individual. Employees will be given the name and or title of the individual so selected. A prompt investigation will be conducted as discreetly as possible. Obviously, no employee reporting any such harassment will be subject to any sort of retaliatory action. Any employee accused of prohibited conduct will have the opportunity to explain the conduct in question. In the case of our employees, if harassment is proven, the offender will be disciplined, up to and including termination. It is the responsibility of every employee to conscientiously follow this policy.

Conclusion
Romances between co-workers, employers & workers, vendors, and customers/patients may happen. Discuss with your team how you will handle this issue. Establish a policy that is professional, sensible, and in line with your dental practice's fundamental principles. Regardless of inter-office relationships, your team must know the expectations for job performance and behave in a responsible, professional manner within the work environment.