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Every February a senior manager buys expensive jewelry and gives each women in his office one—on Valentine’s Day. The manager, who makes a lot of money, doesn’t consider the gift extravagant. He also doesn’t single anyone out, gifting the jewelry to all the women he works with, no matter their age or marital status.
Is it an appropriate gesture? Or does is it an unwelcome romantic overture?
An attorney who looked into the gift giving (after one woman complained to HR) said the manager thought it was a nice present, and he didn’t have any romantic intentions toward any of these women. However, each individual woman only knew about the gift that she received and did not know that he gave it to other women as well. Some realized he was just an extravagant gift-giver, but it was clear that some were uncomfortable with his gesture.
No lawsuits resulted from this example, but the episode demonstrates that HR professionals need to communicate clear guidelines about employee behavior on Valentine’s Day.
Office-Romance Policies Stricter
The manager might have avoided complaints had his company spelled out what is and is not allowed—in terms of gifts, cards and romantic displays among co-workers.
A labor attorney recommends if the manager wanted to give gifts on Valentine’s Day that they should have been small gifts and he should have gave them to everyone, regardless of their gender. She added “When you give the gift to one specific gender, you risk not only women coming forward and saying they felt this was harassment, but you also risk a claim of gender discrimination. Men do file lawsuits saying they’re being discriminated against.”
Company policies about office romance are a lot stricter today than they were just a few years ago, according to a September 2013 survey of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The survey found that more than twice as many employers have written or verbal polices on office romances than did in 2005, even though the vast majority of respondents (67%) said the number of romances among employees has stayed the same over the past eight years.
Some employment experts discourage any Valentine’s Day card exchanges in the office. Another labor attorney recalled one instance of card-giving that led to a sexual harassment lawsuit: A manager gave a subordinate a card with a cartoon drawing of a person’s naked behind on the front.
“It wasn’t particularly romantic,” the attorney said, adding that the card might have been a thank-you gesture for the woman’s help on a project. “He thought it was cute, and he wanted to thank her, but it wasn’t the wisest move. The whole concept of gift-giving on Valentine’s Day has that romantic overlay. This is a romantic day, so you’re starting with the premise that any gift on this day may have broader meaning than, say, if it was given on the 4th of July.”
Couples in the Office
What about gift or card exchanges between married or dating couples in an office?
Although some employment experts discourage Valentine’s Day gifts delivered at work, gifts between office couples are appropriate as long as they’re in good taste. A bouquet of flowers delivered to the office is fine, however sexy lingerie probably is not.
Managers who date (or are married to) lower-level employees must be especially careful about Valentine’s Day demonstrations, even if they don’t directly supervise their significant other.
You can’t control what goes on outside the office, but, hopefully something in your company training informs employees that they need to be sensitive when they are in a personal relationship with a co-worker, because that may have an impact on the people around them. An extravagant gift that is given or delivered to work can result in an impression of favoritism in the workplace.
Forty percent of the SHRM survey respondents said employees complained about favoritism between co-workers in a romantic relationship. Such perceptions can damage workplace morale.
Plenty of companies forbid intimate relationships even when there are not supervisory concerns. About one-third of organizations prohibit romances between employees who report to the same supervisor or between an employee and a client or customer, according to a recent SHRM study. Almost one in 10 (11%) also don’t allow romances between their employees and those of competitor organizations. And more than one in 10 (12%) won’t even allow workers in different departments to pair up.
Respondents worry that office romances will lead to public displays of affection, inappropriate sharing of confidential company information between romantic partners, inappropriate gossiping among co-workers, less productivity from the couple and their colleagues, and damage to the organization’s image because the pairing may be seen as unprofessional.
Managers who want to acknowledge the holiday could bring in a treat or gift cards to share with all employees in a department. Cookies, candy and cupcakes are easily shared and generally appreciated. Another idea would be to take the whole department out to lunch.
It’s important for HR managers to customize their office-romance policies based on what’s happened at the company in the past. You can customize the training to deal with facts that are prevalent in your workplace. If you have a lot of young single people who are dating or hooking up, your training will probably look different than a workplace with older married couples.