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How to Keep Office Romance From Poisoning the Workplace

With office romance on the rise -- and employees are worrying less about hiding it -- here's how to keep from flirting with disaster.
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Love has come out of the supply closet at the office, with a new poll finding that 67 percent of employees see no need to hide co-worker couplings. That's up from 54 percent in 2005, according to a CareerBuilder survey of 5,231 employees released Tuesday.
 
How can you make sure hearts and flowers don't give way to office gossip, accusations of favoritism, and claims of sexual harassment? (Well, forget about silencing the office gossip – especially if either member of the couple is indiscreet enough to post photos on Facebook.) The pitfalls of dating a coworker – something 37 percent of those polled said they'd done at some point in their career – are magnified in a small office. A couple whether bickering or blissful can have a particularly disruptive effect on the chemistry of a small workplace.
 
Consider the case of a couple at Slingshot, a Dallas interactive advertising agency. The pair behaved perfectly appropriately in the office, but when they started going to lunch together every day, the other five people on their team felt "felt excluded, and it created a lot of negativity," Slingshot chief executive Owen Hannay told The Wall Street Journal. (The couple later left the company.) 
 
Problems can multiply when couples break up.
 
"There is a very clear dark side to relationships at work going south," Donna Flagg, founder of human resources consulting group Krysalis Group, told the Houston Chronicle. "Everyone becomes vulnerable if the romance doesn't work out, and that can really hit the business."
 
But with most Americans spending more than half their waking hours at the office, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to ban dating there. So some companies are feeling the love contract, forcing employees to disclose their relationship – and declare that it's consensual – in a legal document. The contract also may lay out the company's sexual harassment policy. (For some examples of wording, click here.)
 
You don't have to take out a contract to keep the peace in the office, though. John A. Challenger, CEO of the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, says companies without a written dating policy should still give managers and executives some guidelines on how to handle relationships if they start to become a distraction.
 
Companies need a clear definition of what relationships are acceptable. Dating a co-worker may get the nod, but you may want special rules if a couple are in the same department or work group.
 
Define appropriate and inappropriate behavior. If you don't want to see even a peck on the cheek, be clear about the rules and consistent about disciplining when they're broken, Challenger told USA Today
 
Protect yourself from potential lawsuits by avoiding impropriety, perceived or otherwise. If you're going to allow dating between managers and those workers they supervise, consider a policy that ensures that the subordinate doesn't report directly to his or her significant other. And be sure to adopt a sexual harassment policy and "repeatedly re-enforce with workers and managers that no means no," James J. McDonald, managing partner at labor law firm Fisher & Phillips, told the Orange County Register. 'Typically in courtship people say that no means ask me again. But in the workplace, no means no or risk a sexual harassment lawsuit.'
 
Finally, remember that inter-office dating doesn't always spell doom. (After all, one-third of those CareerBuilder surveyed said they went on to marry their office sweetheart.) Frederick S. Lane III, author of The Naked Employee: How Technology is Compromising Workplace Privacy, points to evidence that co-workers who date spend more time at work, have higher motivation, fewer sick days, and are easier to retain.
 
Now there's something to love this Valentine's Day.

Last updated: Feb 10, 2010

COURTNEY RUBIN

Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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