Thursday, February 20, 2014

Romance in the Workplace

Oh, what a tangled web they weave….

Okay, I should have posted this last week but I already had a post written and I was busy dealing with two feet of snow. *sigh* But, this is a timeless topic, right? Much to the headache of many an HR pro, yes it is.

CareerBuilder timely and topical as ever, released their annual Valentine’s Day survey on office romances, with some rather interesting responses. They surveyed over 3,000 full-time private sector workers and found that 38% of them have dated someone who works for the same company (16% have done so more than once). Thirty-one percent of those ended up marrying their workplace sweetheart. That’s a lot of hookin’ up going on! Scarier is that 20% said one of the people in the relationship was already married (to someone else) at the time. That makes for a fun time around the water cooler.

Against all career advice to the contrary, 24% of respondents have dated someone higher up in the organization, including the boss. It’s not surprising to find that only 3% of them stated that doing so helped them progress in their career.

We spend a lot of our time at work; some of us spend a lot of time with co-workers outside of normal business hours, too. It’s not too hard to understand how romantic connections are made with people from work, but is it smart? And how does management and HR deal with these romances – the ones that "work" and the ones that don’t?

First, I think it’s important to accept the fact that not only is it probably not a great idea to ban all workplace romances, dating, etc., but that it would really be impossible to prevent them. And really, do you want to be the love police? I think not.

However, there are situations where an employer is either smart, or compelled to intervene.

Late last year, SHRM conducted a survey of their own about workplace romance policies. Author Dana Wilkie tells us many more companies have implemented policies, wanting to protect themselves from claims of sexual harassment and prevent favoritism, or the perception of favoritism, that can damage morale and productivity. The number of companies with policies has doubled in the last 8 years.

Survey respondents said they worried office romances would lead to public displays of affection, sharing of confidential information, gossip among co-workers and even a negative image of the company because the relationship may be seen as unprofessional.

If implementing a workplace romance policy, an option is to ban all dating entirely. Again, I think this is unreasonable and unenforceable, but an option nonetheless. Most policies prohibit supervisors from dating a direct report, appropriately I think. Others prohibit romances between employees with different ranks, regardless of the reporting relationship or department in which they work. I sincerely believe this is the smart way to go. The imbalance of power that exists in such a relationship is risky on many fronts – from the clear legal risk of sexual harassment claims to the risk of the perceived favoritism that will cause productivity and morale/fairness issues.

Another option is what’s commonly called a "love contract" or a consensual relationship agreement. These are gaining some popularity, but carry their own risks. Such agreements are designed to allow employees to disclose relationships while protecting the employer from liability in the event the relationship goes sour. They often include language addressing the voluntary nature of the couple’s relationship, the necessity to comply with the company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, workplace behavior and the possible change of reporting relationships.

While some companies may see the benefit in such agreements, it’s important to realize that no agreement can totally protect against legal claims of harassment or discrimination. It’s too easy for the least powerful of the couple to claim that signing the agreement was coerced!

What should we do with workplace romances? The answer is a bit different depending on the players.

Supervisor/subordinate: I’ll include people of differing ranks here, not just direct supervisor and report. I would strongly advise that any policy, whether written or unwritten, prohibit such relationships. Again, the imbalance of power is too great a risk. The perception and the consequences of that perception, of that relationship are way too destructive to tolerate. Should such a relationship happen, your options are fairly limited: a) terminate the supervisor; b) transfer one of them if possible (preferably the supervisor) and live with the ongoing risk. Neither option is ideal, but then again having a supervisor make such an irresponsible decision isn’t ideal, either.

Co-worker/co-worker: I think the best you can expect is to manage what happens in the workplace. Punishing employees who are on an equal footing for their personal relationship isn’t going to win you any awards and will garner accusations of unreasonably interfering with people’s personal lives. However, you can control what goes on during work time. If having the two people working in the same department or working close to one another is problematic, separate them. They then won’t be able to allow their relationship to interfere with their work. At any rate, sit down with them and be clear about what you expect from them in terms of behavior on the job and your expectation that their relationship will not interfere with either their performance, or the performance of others. You should include mention of what may happen if the relationship ends badly. Are you prepared to deal with the fallout at work?

Office romances can be very tricky and may sometimes drift into the realm of the truly uncomfortable or dangerous. They can be handled, but carefully. Personally, I think that being involved in a sexual relationship with anyone at work is especially stupid and will most likely end badly, one way or another. Having said that, I also know several couples who met at work and are now married and live quite happily with no problems displayed at work. It can happen! Just make sure you’re aware of the pitfalls and manage the risk.

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