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When a Workplace Affair Becomes Public

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T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach, anchors of “GMA3,” the afternoon spinoff of “Good Morning America,” did not tell their boss that their on-air friendship had turned into a romantic relationship.

“They were waiting until they both were divorced,” Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman representing both Mr. Holmes and Ms. Robach, said last week.

“They had been close friends for many years, but this relationship started over the past few months,” he said. “They had not told anyone, even at ABC.”

The revelation of their relationship last week by The Daily Mail, which published secretly taken photos of Ms. Robach and Mr. Holmes, ignited a tabloid furor, with a flurry of snarky reactions and memes flooding the internet.

On Monday, Kim Godwin, the president of ABC News, told her staff that she had decided to temporarily remove Ms. Robach and Mr. Holmes from the anchor desk because the relationship, while not in violation of company policy, had become a distraction. The pair have been permanent co-anchors of the program since September 2020.

A representative from ABC News declined to comment about its dating and fraternization policies on Tuesday.

Many employers have general guidelines around workplace relationships, either in an employee handbook, company policy or individual contracts. Some put in place fraternization policies to address potential relationships in which a supervisor and subordinate engage romantically, which could create a liability for the employer, according to Kevin Moore, a lawyer in Reading, Pa.

Interoffice relationships have long been a staple of workplace dynamics but how employers respond to such matters has changed and become more complicated in recent years. Notably, the #MeToo movement led many companies to root out unbalanced power dynamics that could leave one person feeling pressure to accept the advances of another and reckon with systems that allow these things to occur.

There are many examples of public figures who met their spouses at work. Before he became president, Barack Obama met his wife, Michelle, in 1989 while they were working at a law firm in Chicago, where she was assigned to be his adviser. The co-hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, were married to other people when the show debuted in 2007. A few years after divorcing their previous spouses, they revealed their engagement in 2017.

Romances in unconventional workplaces can also create tumult. When Olivia Wilde, the director of “Don’t Worry Darling,” became involved with Harry Styles, who was cast in the film, it created a tidal wave of negative media and social media attention focused on the reactions of Florence Pugh, the star of the movie, as well as Jason Sudeikis, Ms. Wilde’s former fiancé.

When it comes to workplace romances, it might be acceptable under a company’s policy if there are no power dynamics at play, the relationship is consensual and it does not affect the work at hand. But these policies rely on the honesty of the employees and their willingness to report their relationship, which doesn’t happen that often.

“Workplace romance can’t be completely avoided: Human beings are social creatures,” Mr. Moore said in a phone interview.

“The most important rule that every employer imposes,” he added, “whether it’s in writing as a policy or as a matter of best practice, is that they share with the employer that there’s no part of the personal relationship that should interfere with the professional work.”

According to a survey of a few hundred U.S. employees in January by the Society for Human Resource Management, office romances rose slightly during the pandemic. .

A few reasons for this uptick was that remote work during the last few years made it easier to conceal a romantic relationship and there’s been a growing trend of people, especially in the last several years, who don’t view this as a “big deal” anymore, according to Johnny Taylor, the H.R. management group’s chief executive.

“Prepandemic, when everyone was working in the office, if you’re going to do it, you had to get pretty salacious — hotel rooms, ducking and dodging, business trips — when the opportunity made itself available,” Mr. Taylor said. “It was always occurring, but with all of this opportunity, the pandemic really accelerated their ability to do it.”

The H.R. professional association is finding that absent a power imbalance, more employers are becoming comfortable with these relationships, but they are requiring some form of disclosure and that the employees abide by boundaries put in place.

Still, Mr. Taylor counsels caution. “We still discourage it,” he said. “If you go to most handbooks, they will say this is no longer a terminal or a disciplinary offense, but do so at your own peril.”

“I say this to my employees: Once you know that there’s a ‘there’ there, like this is really going to be something, I’m not saying that you’re going to become married, but this is a serious dating relationship, we need to be aware of it simply to protect the company,” he added.

In cases in which a romantic workplace relationship becomes public and the employees involved did not give their company a heads up, there can be consequences.

“If an employer has a policy or practice that imposes the duty of disclosure or notice on the employees and they fail to disclose, that’s actionable as a violation of company policy,” Mr. Moore said. “The consequences of a later disclosure could harm the company, the brand, their image, whatever that public perception might be.”

There are still many employers who don’t have clear rules on the matter. And if a relationship is revealed to the public or on the internet, that doesn’t automatically mean anything they did was necessarily wrong. In such instances, an employer would have to make a decision about whether it’s going to take action.

Using high-profile broadcast journalists as an example, Mr. Moore said they might be held to a higher standard because of their public positions.

“How much credibility does the broadcast journalist now have if their personal conduct is disclosed to be questionable, even though it has nothing to do with whether they do their job well?” he said. “Employers who have forward-facing, public-facing, brand-related employees, these kinds of policies are that much more important.”

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