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#MeToo revelations have made workplace romances complicated for employers

Ally Marotti, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

These days, office romances are full of paperwork.

Dating colleagues has always been laced with the forbidden, be it by company policy or social taboo. But as more women come forward with stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, often at the hands of men at higher pay grades, the conversation about the subject is shifting.

Companies have changed the way they approach the often inevitable workplace romance since the #MeToo movement caught fire last fall on social media. Some have turned to so-called love contracts, which newly dating co-workers sign to assure their boss that everything is consensual. Employees laugh at them, but they're an employer's way of reducing risk should the relationship sour.

"It's changing everyone's perspectives," said Andrew Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which released a survey on workplace romance this month. "(It used to be) laissez-faire, people can date who they want to date, but I think companies are realizing to create a safe environment for the employees, there needs to be some policing."

It's a delicate balance to strike, though, and banning relationships isn't always the answer, Challenger said. When co-workers spend more waking hours at the office than at home, romances are bound to blossom. But some are also destined to fail.

Of the 150 human resource executives Challenger, Gray & Christmas surveyed in January, more than 60 percent said they've had to deal with a failed or inappropriate relationship at work. One-third ended in at least one person's separation from the company.

Cafe Marie-Jeanne in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood is fortunate, co-owner Mike Simmons said. He and his wife, co-owner Valerie Szafranski, haven't had to deal with any co-worker relationships that have gone wrong since opening the restaurant in January 2016. The cafe has "a very hard-line 'no' policy" regarding harassment of any type -- among co-workers and from guests.

Simmons wants to believe that everyone respects each other all the time, but he said he knows there are moments that aren't on his or Szafranski's radar. They have tried to keep a conversation regarding the #MeToo movement going with their employees over the past several months. It helps that workers know where they stand, and they can learn about where the employees stand, Simmons said.

"We also feel like it's a way to counter, just in our little corner of the city and of the business, this type of toxic behavior that's starting to come to light," he said.

The #MeToo revelations caused nearly 35 percent of respondents to the Challenger survey to review their sexual harassment policies.

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