While they may seem like a Hollywood cliche, workplace romances aren’t just a juicy plot twist to a popular movie or TV show. In fact, workplace romance is so common in the restaurant industry that it’s practically inevitable. As common as they are, however, such relationships should not go unregulated. Many workplace romances ultimately create poor work environments, increased turnover, and even lawsuits. Restaurants can avoid these issues and let employees know their expectations with carefully crafted workplace relationship policies.

Why are Workplace Romances Commonplace in the Restaurant Industry?

Some suggest that the increased odds for a fling with a coworker are due to the fact that restaurant staff tends to be composted of younger, single adults.  While just 12% of older populations surveyed in one Workplace Options and Public Policy Polling survey were not opposed to romantic involvement with their boss, 40% of millennials were unbothered by the idea of becoming romantically involved with a superior. Further, 71% of millennials reported that workplace romance boosted their morale and workplace performance. In other words, young people tend to be more accepting and open to workplace romances. Others note the significance of restaurant employees’ hours: staff tends to work long and late hours, meaning that when they socialize, it is more likely to be with coworkers and at a time and place when alcohol is involved. 

However, whether or not claims of improved morale and performance are accurate, workplace romance also carries several risks. Not only do many workplace romances not work out, creating awkward or even hostile work environments, but some “romances” that are actually one-sided may result in legal claims sexual harassment. Increased turnover and legal claims of favoritism are also potential outcomes when employees engage in workplace relationships.

Because of the risks involved when a supervisor and subordinate have a romantic relationship, many businesses have implemented anti-fraternization policies prohibiting such relationships. In fact, according to one study by the Society for Human Resource Management, as of 2013 roughly 42 percent of businesses had either a verbal or written policy on workplace romance. 

However, many still do not see an issue with workplace romance so long as the relationship is consensual. In situations where there is a power imbalance due to position, however, it is extremely difficult for outsiders to decipher between consent and coercion. This is because only supervisors have the power to affect decisions made within the workplace, whether it be a show of favoritism or adverse employment action against an ex.

By having a carefully crafted anti-fraternization policy in place, restaurants can avoid the potential issues that arise when workplace romance starts to blossom between an employee and their superior. Such a policy also lets employees know what behavior is expected of them, and provides legal grounds for action against employees who fail to comply. 

Take, for example, the recent case of McDonald’s: the fast-food giant’s CEO, Steve Easterbrook, was recently removed from his position for holding a romantic relationship with an employee. While both parties claimed the relationship was consensual, relationships between supervisors and subordinates violate McDonald’s anti-fraternization policy. This is a common practice among businesses with similar policies in place: if the relationship is to continue, one of the parties involved must either resign, transfer, or face removal.

Even in instances where a workplace romance does not involve a supervisor and subordinate, it can still be helpful to have a clear workplace relationship policy in place. For instance, married couples who work in the same office need to be careful not to let their relationship interfere with work assignments or the workplace environment. The same goes for employees of a similar status who are dating. A workplace relationship policy should include behavioral guidelines for employees in these situations, as well as an outline for reporting and resolving violations.

Restaurant relationship policies, including anti-fraternization policies, are unlikely to stop workplace romances from occurring — especially in an industry where workplace romance is so common. However, such policies are still valuable. By having carefully crafted workplace relationship policies in place, restaurants are able to let employees know what is expected of them while protecting their business from potential claims of harassment, favoritism, and more.