Office romances—romantic relationships between two people employed by the same employer—are as common now as they have been throughout history. The long hours many people spend at work make for a situation in which those with whom we work are for many not only colleagues but our primary source of social contact. Therefore, romantic relationships are bound to develop. In fact, according to an article on the Discovery Health Channel Web site, 4 out of 10 people now meet their spouses at the office and more than half of those partaking in a survey reported to having had at least one office romance. Many office romances end happily, but not all. For businesses, workplace romances carry with them the potential to complicate the work environment and cause difficulties of various types—lost productivity due to distraction; accusations of favoritism; jealousy among co-workers; the potential for an antagonistic mood should the relationship end poorly; and, in a worst-case scenario, allegations of sexual harassment in the event that one of the parties asserts that he or she was coerced. Because of these potential pitfalls, many firms have policies that were established to try and discourage or even prohibit such liaisons from forming. The question for the small business owner or manager becomes: how best is one to manage such relationships so that they do not have a negative impact on the company without infringing unduly on the privacy of employees?
DEALING WITH OFFICE ROMANCES
Most experts suggest that a company establish some sort of policy addressing this issue so that it is not put in a position of being reactionary when confronted with the first such romance. By planning ahead, incorporating guidelines on workplace romances into the employment policies, and publicizing these policies, a company can remove confusion and in most cases the concern about favoritism.
Small companies may be in a more difficult position than larger firms when it comes to managing workplace romances. In a large firm, an office romance may be more easily worked around. A large firm has multiple departments into which employees who are romantically involved may be transferred so that they do not work as closely together. Arlene Vernon, a human resource consultant with HRX, explained it this way in an interview with journalist Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, in a Pool & Spa News article, "It becomes an issue for a smaller organization because everyone's watching and wondering if this one's going to last. It becomes this whole saga. You might as well turn it into a sitcom'¶. I think it is actually harder for the smaller organizations than the larger ones. It can be more invisible in the larger ones."
Knowing what to include in a workplace policy on dating or romantic relationships is not easy. Banning dating among employees may not be a reasonable solution, although exceptions can certainly be made in instances where one of the principals involved has a supervisory role over the other. One concern with a newly forming romance in the workplace is that it will be accompanied by inappropriate displays of affection in the office. This, in turn, can cause an uncomfortable environment for others and certainly presents a less than professional image. A company may address this concern by establishing an on-the-job code of conduct that specifically addresses a professional work environment and prohibits "public displays of affection."
As a minimum, any policy designed to regulate dating or office romances should be designed to protect the company against sexual harassment liability and ensure a professional work environment. Actions to consider when preparing such a policy include:
- State what is not acceptable—Define in the policy exactly what types of relationships will and will not be tolerated. Most human resource professionals recommend establishing policies that prohibit supervisors from dating a direct report. Policies may also note that staff members are expected to behave professionally and that romantic trysts should be kept out of the work environment.
- Make penalties clear—Define what actions will be undertaken if the policies are violated—transfer, demotion, termination.
- Address sexual harassment head on—State outright that any alleged sexual harassment will be handled in a legally proper manner. Managers must make employees aware that the company has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. Information should be provided about the consequences of such behavior. Companies may even require that their employees sign documentation indicating that they understand and will abide by the policy.
- Reinforce policies on sexual harassment—Provide training for all supervisors/managers about sexual harassment in all its forms. Educate them on the various signs that an office romance is having a negative impact on the company's efficiency (these signs can range from increased workplace friction to unprofessional displays of affection, anger, or other emotions).
- Show respect for privacy—Do not overstep boundaries of employee privacy. A company needs to make it abundantly clear that workplace performance is its primary concern.
- Encourage open communications—Consider requesting employees to disclose a relationship if it becomes romantic. This may be a difficult task for employees if the penalties for such a relationship are severe. If, on the other hand, the company is willing to work with the couple then it is more likely that they will communicate their involvement in an appropriate manner.
Do not flinch from intervening promptly in situations where a workplace relationship is having a detrimental effect on business productivity. In cases of sexual harassment claims, more often than not, court decisions on liability have little to do with whether a company had a dating policy in place and everything to do with how a company responded when a complaint was lodged. Prompt response to workplace issues that arise from an office romance gone sour can go far toward addressing the problem.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN FLIRTING AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Given the increase in sexual harassment lawsuits that have exposed an ongoing problem in many businesses, it is not surprising that small business owners have expressed concern about the sometimes blurry boundaries between office flirtations—which may lead to full-fledged office romances—and ugly instances of sexual harassment. While businesses can take certain steps to define inappropriate office conduct, many of them quite effective, stopping sexual harassment is often a more complicated issue if the two people involved were formerly romantically involved. Indeed, some people resort to harassment in the wake of a breakup, while others have been known to level false harassment charges after being jilted. If an office relationship degenerates to such a point, it is important for the business owner to maintain an impartial stance and make sure that decisions are made on the basis of the evidence at hand.
DISPARATE VIEWS OF OFFICE ROMANCE
Assessments of the dangers of office romance vary dramatically. Some observers view it as a wholly undesirable condition that should be avoided by business owners and managers if at all possible, while others view it as a potential positive development, provided that the relationship lies within certain parameters. But what happens when a philanderer dates and discards casually within a company, leaving angry, litigation-prone employees in his/her wake? Reasons for dating policies to address supervisors, subordinates, and clients, not to mention patients and vendors, are understandable.
The risks that a deteriorating romance pose for a company that employes both parties are undeniable. Perhaps, however, the benefits of happily partnered employees is another possible outcome to an office romance. Famous cases abound: Microsoft's founder Bill Gates and opera impresario Luciano Pavarotti both married employees of their organizations. Obviously, businesses create dating policies to try and manage the negative aspects of office romances, and those that crash and burn. But, since perfectly happy relationships may result from office romances, policies that are clear and specific about exactly what they prohibit are best.
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