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Love and Romance in the Workplace

by Harvey Meyer

Romance in the workplace is nothing new, and neither are the problems that can result. But not all workplace romances cause problems, and in many cases they actually improve productivity and morale. So how should your business handle this touchy subject? Here are some guidelines to consider.

A married man is having an adulterous relationship with a female co-worker. Worse, the man is openly hugging and kissing this woman, whom he supervises and who directly reports to him.

This nightmare scenario is why some small businesses are forced to reckon with workplace romance. If they’re not paying attention to Cupid’s arrows amid the flow charts and balance sheets, they could be in for unexpected surprises. Disastrous love affairs may damage morale and productivity. Some workplace romances can lead to sexual harassment cases, which can carry serious legal – and financial – consequences.

Yet few small companies have formal policies on workplace dating and even fewer ban such romances. In large part, that’s because firms believe it’s none of their business if co-workers pair up.

It seems there’s little need for company scrutiny, since comparatively few workplace relationships create problems. A Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) survey of 617 enterprises revealed just 4 percent of the people involved in a failed office romance issued a formal complaint.

Still, savvy companies should keep their eyes peeled. For one thing, many more women are working these days and there are more opportunities for hook-ups. Sixty-four percent of HR professionals, according to a 2003 online SHRM survey, indicated the number of workplace romances increased or remained stable during the previous five years.

It’s understandable why office love connections flourish: People spend much of their lives at work and end up sharing hobbies, personality quirks and intimacies. Dating co-workers seem safer, especially for many women, because they get time to know each other. Moreover, many employees share similar education, interests, attitudes, values, and income levels. And often work projects offer intellectual stimulation and emotional bonding.

Far from being harmful, many romances actually improve work performances. They add a dynamism and energy that translates into enhanced morale, communication, creativity and even productivity. Should these relationships evolve into long-term commitments, as often happens, companies will generally benefit from happier and more fulfilled employees.

So it appears the key issue isn’t thwarting workplace romances so much as managing them. That has special relevance for small firms, where love affairs can be especially dicey. Many workers there have overlapping responsibilities and frequently interact. Love affairs are quickly noticed and co-workers are especially sensitive to favoritism, whispered confidences, and tensions and hostilities, all of which may affect morale and even performance. Unfortunately, unlike large companies that have many facilities and departments, there are fewer options to transfer small-firm employees whose flowering or failing romance disrupts the workplace.

How best to regulate love in small companies? Some should consider drafting written workplace romance guidelines. Such a document encourages employees, especially supervisors and subordinates, to think twice about engaging in an office affair. Guidelines may also offer additional protection to companies defending themselves against sexual harassment charges.

(For purposes of this discussion, workplace romance is generally characterized as some form of intimate relationship between truly consenting employees. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment affects the terms and conditions of employment or employment decisions and may create a hostile working environment for others.)

Written guidelines help companies establish a professional and fair work atmosphere and underscore their legitimate preference for a productive environment. The document should be clear, comprehensive and circulated throughout the company. It should be consistently applied and mesh with other policies. It’s critical the guidelines pertain to all employees, regardless of company position, marital status or sexual preference.

Check with your industry association to determine what similar firms included in their guidelines, and read the latest credible material on the subject. The guidelines should undergo legal scrutiny, including whether they comply with federal, state and local laws and recent court cases. The document should be broad and flexible enough so as not to intrude on employees’ privacy.

Firms may also want to educate employees, perhaps holding a company-wide discussion on proposed guidelines. Experts advise involving workers in drafting the document, so they have ownership in it.

In a separate measure, companies should consider offering training on workplace romance concerns to supervisors and managers. Merely discussing the subject may dissuade them from dating subordinates in their chain of command, which is among the most worrisome of office romances.

Workplace Romance Guidelines

Should your small company generally ban workplace romance? Probably not, because employees may view it as an affront to their privacy and out of touch with workplace realities.

It may also be unnecessary, depending on the make-up of your employees and whether they work in different departments or facilities. An across-the-board dating ban may also be impossible to enforce. And it may prove a liability should competitors have a laissez faire approach to office romance.


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