Can love at the office work out? Of course, it can, and it does, and many couples live happily ever after. But, if you're the boss, should you be concerned about office romance? You betcha.

No boss wants to play chaperone to a bunch of grownups, but the reality is, romances can wreck havoc not only on company morale but be legally sketchy.

It's something every business needs to think about. Vault.com released its annual Office Romance Survey, and there are some things of interest for all business owners and managers-and individual contributors.

Lots of romance at work

16 percent of respondents said they've not only dated someone in the office but dated a superior.

23 percent of respondents said they'd dated a direct report.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Sure, the 1950s standard where the boss (male) marries the secretary (female) and then they have a wonderful life together is still possible-although the genders may be reversed (or identical) these days. But, consider that the average woman will kiss 15 men before finding that happily ever after partner, the chances of your particular office romance being "the one" is pretty slim.

What happens to those other people who aren't the one? Well, I'd like to say everyone has a nice breakup where they both believe that it's for the best and everyone stays friends on Facebook and goes to each others' weddings five years down the road. But, sometimes that goes poorly. Especially when one or both parties are already married.

Think that type of affair only happens in the movies as well? According to the Vault survey:

  • 46 percent of survey respondents have known a married co-worker to have an affair at the office
  • 35 percent of survey respondents have known a married or seriously involved co-worker who had a romantic liaison while on a business trip for the company
  • 19 percent of survey respondents themselves have been involved in an office affair while at least one of the parties was married or in a long-term relationship with another party

Yikes. What happens in an affair situation? Isn't that all about outside the office stuff and why should the boss care? Take this example from Employment Attorney, Robin Shea.

Here's a scenario that I see pretty frequently. Married male supervisor has affair with married female subordinate. Female subordinate's husband suspects she is cheating on him, and he puts a tap on the phone. He catches his wife and her boss in lovey-dovey talk and blows up, threatening her with divorce and loss of her kids. She tells her boss-lover what's going on, and he starts thinking. "Hmm. Maybe this affair wasn't such a great idea. Some bad stuff could happen. I think I'll stay with my wife." So he breaks it off with his subordinate. Now she's high and dry, and her husband is planning to leave her and take their kids.

There is one way out for her. Can you guess what it is?

She tells her husband that her supervisor was sexually harassing her. Boom! She's off the hook with her husband, but now we have a lawsuit.

But, you say, the affair was consensual, and surely an investigation or a lawsuit will show that it was consensual, and the company will be off the hook. There are emails and texts and all that stuff that shows that both the supervisor and the employee were willing participants.

Except, there's that little thing about power. When one partner in a romance is the boss, they have more pull in the relationship. It's not equal. After all-what happens if the direct report decides to break it off. Will she now get worse assignments? Will she be passed over for promotion?

The problems go the other way as well. When things are going great, romantically, is the direct report receiving favors from the boss that other employees aren't getting? Is she (or he) getting better opportunities, better exposure, and better raises because of romance? Take all that into consideration and you can see why it's extremely difficult to prove, without a doubt, that sexual harassment was not involved in an affair between unequal participants.

Do you need a policy?

Of course, you do. Don't be silly. You need a policy for everything, even though that's really boring. Personally, I would ban all romantic relationships between people who are at different levels. Of course, if your company grows to 10,000 people, it's not a huge deal if an entry level person in accounting is dating a Sr. Manager in research and development, but in a startup of 50 people, every high-level person is going to have a say over every lower level employee's advancement opportunities.

Talk with your lawyer about drafting a policy that will work for the needs of your business and then enforce it. This may ultimately mean letting someone go, but remember even lawsuits that you win are expensive.

Published on: Feb 12, 2016
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