Practicing security clearance law for a decade resulted in some insights into human behavior. One of those is that many romantic relationships arise due to proximity and shared circumstances – neither of which is necessarily a recipe for success. Think about that for a moment: how many times have you heard whispers of colleague “A” and colleague “B’s” after-hours rendezvous or observed the telltale signs of romance? How often did those trysts or relationships end well?

What about the occasional case of colleagues caught in the janitor’s closet? Have you heard of any happy marriages born of cleaning supply room bliss?

Office Romances in the Cleared Workplace

That’s not to say office romances can never end well, only that it is in my experience uncommon. Nonetheless, they are a frequent occurrence, especially in cleared workplaces. I think there are a few different reasons for the prevalence, but one is undoubtedly (and ironically) security warnings about alternatives like dating apps and bars. These well-meaning and legitimate advisories about making one’s self a target for so-called honeypot traps, the risks of inadvertently connecting with foreign nationals, and the perils of excessive alcohol consumption can make the cleared workplace look like happy hunting grounds. But before you fish from the company pier, consider whether the risks are worth the potential rewards.

1. Supervisor-Subordinate Situations

Let’s start with the hopefully obvious: supervisor-subordinate relationships. In federal government agencies, the military, and most government contractors, this is a quick ticket to disciplinary action up to and including termination. If the pull of romantic attraction is that strong, the only viable option is often for one party to the budding relationship to resign before things progress.

2. Just a Colleague

Less problematic on paper is the relationship between two similarly-situated colleagues. While most employers don’t have a blanket policy against fraternization, many still take a dim view of it. The reason for this isn’t because Karen the cat lady from Human Resources hates romance, although she might. Rather, it is because we live in a litigious society and statistically most relationships don’t work out. Employers rightly fear workplace relationships that end badly because they can precipitate claims of sexual harassment.

Risks for Any Office Romance

Under either scenario, federal employees and contractors should consider not only the risks of disciplinary action, litigation, and the issue of optics, but also their security clearance. Intra-office romances can potentially raise security concerns about personal conduct, misuse of IT systems, and indiscreet sexual behavior – including where one party has left the employer but engaged in problematic behavior before departing. .

Those are the contexts in which workplace relationships typically came across my desk. And, while some of the more salacious but unsubstantiated allegations before security officials were dismissed as he said-she said, a common theme was meticulous documentation of policy violations and disciplinary action by employers worried about their own exposure to litigation. This was particularly true in some of the larger defense and aerospace contractors, most of whom have robust internal mechanisms in place to deal with these incidents. Federal agency security officials are provided access to those reports, which are evaluated in determining an individual’s eligibility for (continued) access to classified information.

Lonely or Unemployed…

So, this Valentine’s Day, remember that while the Lonely Hearts Club isn’t a fun place to be, neither is the unemployment line. Pursue any intra-office relationships with caution and ideally only after inquiring with Human Resources about company policy on the matter.

I know, I know: nothing says romance and excitement like a chat with HR. But who knows – maybe Karen the cat lady is a romantic at heart.

 

 

This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/.