Co-worker or girlfriend? How Utah companies should approach our unique workplace relationships

My marriage would crumble if my company had an anti-nepotism policy. Okay, maybe not crumble, but the relationship I have with my wife, who is also my company’s co-founder (and my co-worker), would definitely be different if we weren’t working together every day.

As both a small business owner and a worker in Utah, I’m not alone in my thinking or in my position — being married to a coworker. It’s no secret that we probably have more than our fair share of employees sharing office walls with family members (or soon-to-be family members) in the beehive state. And, no, it doesn’t always work out well, but employee relationships are also not a guaranteed disaster. And at times, they’re the best thing that can ever happen to a workplace.

Think of it this way: you want employees to enjoy going to work. Studies have shown that having a friend at work helps employees be more productive and makes them more satisfied with their jobs (which, to me, says “lower turnover”). My wife IS my best friend. We don’t always agree on everything, but I know how she works and I trust her decisions. As my co-worker, she helps make work a more natural extension of my life.

When we built our business, we hired people we knew and trusted — friends and relatives mostly. This helped us staff up quickly with people whose work ethics and motivations we were sure about. It took some of the fear of hiring the wrong person out of the equation. This is one of the main reasons businesses turn to their current employees for applicant referrals: so they know the person they hire is capable of doing the job and has a fantastic reference ready and waiting.

I’ll admit, however, there are times when dating, marrying or being related to a coworker in any way, shape or form can be a bad thing. Every Utah business owner knows that it’s important for employees to unplug at times so they can return to work refreshed. That’s hard to do when an employee sees their co-workers outside of work, day in and day out. You also want your managers to treat each team member objectively. And you want to avoid unnecessary conflict. Having co-workers involved in more than a “business relationship” makes each of these a challenge.

I still like to think that we’re all professionals and know that our actions on the clock can and likely are different than our actions off the clock. But I also think it’s smart for businesses in Utah to add policies and procedures that ensure there’s no question about how a more-than-work relationship works, like the following:

  1. Create a workplace dating policy. My wife and I were married before we started our business, so workplace dating policies never applied to us. Still, it’s not a bad idea to set some guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior. Have employees sign the policy when they’re first hired and review it annually. You can find sample policies at SHRM.org
  2. Conduct annual workplace anti-harassment training. Review your workplace’s dating policy each year with the whole team and let them know of any behavior that’s deemed “unacceptable” (check with an HR expert to determine what should be off limits). Also, ensure everyone knows how they should address and report questionable behavior.
  3. Require workers to sign an acknowledgment of consensual relationship. This one gets a little tricky, particularly if a dating couple is keeping everything under wraps, so be sure that employees know up front that your HR rep will keep the relationship in complete confidence. Ultimately, however, you want employees to report their co-worker relationship to HR and sign a “love contract.” This is very important so that your company is protected in the event one of the two parties involved ever files a harassment claim.
  4. Remind managers that favoritism won’t fly. Gifts, promotions, raises, preferential treatment, and so on should never be tied to a relationship or to any sexual demand or favors. Ever.
  5. For managers involved in a relationship: keep notes about personnel decisions. Ideally, your managers shouldn’t work with anyone they’re involved with or who could present a conflict of interest. But the world isn’t ideal and sometimes there’s no way to avoid this. Your responsibility is to ensure the manager is making very objective decisions. That means they need to keep detailed notes about all employee matters, including pay raises, promotions, performance management, hiring, firing, and so on, whether it pertains to a person they’re in a personal relationship with or not.

Similar policies can be adopted for siblings and other family members in the workplace. Really, whatever your business opts to do, the goal is to ensure all actions in the workplace are approached objectively. Business first.

For Utahns in particular, this means making every effort possible to ensure no one receives special or different treatment because of a relationship, and that awkward situations are avoided for everyone. Oh, and when in doubt, ask HR.

John Farnsworth is the co-founder and CEO of Stratus.hr, an outsourced HR company that provides big business HR, benefits, payroll and expertise for small-business budgets.