Love at work

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What can a nightclub, the internet and a corporate office have in common? They are all considered good places to find a potential romantic partner in this day and age. The last one may be a relatively new addition to the list, but it's becoming more and more important each year. According to a large number of surveys in the US and Europe, up to two-thirds of employees have either dated or wanted to date a direct colleague.

It's the end-result of a gradual change that has taken place over several decades, with increasing female participation in the workforce and work pressures eating into private time. Whether HR likes it or not, office romances are here to stay. A more competitive workforce requires employees to put in longer working hours than they did 20 years ago. This cuts into their time to mingle with others outside of work. By narrowing the gap between their personal and professional lives, single employees no longer have to sacrifice their social lives in order to get ahead.

But just because it is popular, doesn't mean it is automatically acceptable. There are several real and important business implications for each relationship and its HR's job to ensure the overall impact is positive.

Some amount of eyebrow-raising is a typical reaction to workplace romances, but it is possible to set ground rules. HR needs to work to avoid improper relationships, such as those between supervisor and subordinate, in the first instance. Public displays of affection are also usually frowned upon. Some workers find the concept of office romance disrespectful no matter how equal the pairing, or how private the matter, but a blanket ban will often prove counter-productive.
Out of sight, out of mind

Should HR maintain a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy when it comes to office romances? Or should co-worker couples be responsible for informing HR of their relationship? Should companies have explicit policies which state whether office romances are acceptable or not, or are there unspoken rules in the workplace?

One Sydney health administrator who met her soon-to-be husband in the hospital where she works as says she did not know of any "anti-fraternizing" rules in her organisation. However, she and her partner also knew better than to publicize their relationship to colleagues. "We didn't tell anybody until we were engaged," she said. "Although we didn't believe that being involved in a relationship with a co-worker was wrong, we didn't want our colleagues to think we were unprofessional."

The notion that two coworkers are being "unprofessional" by having an intimate relationship is a common one. Organizational psychologists suggest some employees may find it offensive because it is not an "expected" workplace behaviour. We are used to the notion that there's a place for certain behaviours and that they should not cross over into what is a "professional" realm. Relationships in the office are typically professionally-based - and many feel they should remain this way.

Many HR people say it is not in their capacity to interfere in personal relationships in the office unless these relationships directly affect quality of work. This 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' philosophy has been the default policy for many organizations, struggling with what is a relatively new social phenomenon.

Some employers take another approach by actively encouraging employees to get together. At an independent school in Melbourne, senior administrators admit to deliberately (but covertly) placing single teachers together on the same committees and projects if they see a match. And while some may feel uneasy about being "set up" by their bosses, the school reports only favourable comments, and results!
In the US, Southwest Airlines is even more open about its office dating policies. The company proudly cites the number of employees who are married to each other - 2,000 at last count, nearly 17% of its workforce. Many of these employees met at work. Perhaps this is no surprise for a company based at Love Field, Dallas; and whose stock market ticker symbol is LUV.

Spokeswoman Ashley Rogers says the potential to find a romantic partner at work makes the office culture an enjoyable one, as long as employees continue to be open and mature about it. However, certain romantic pairings are not encouraged. A supervisor dating a subordinate, for example, is generally unacceptable, but the organization does step in to help if a personal relationship between two colleagues might pose a problem. Internal transfers might be the answer, and employees are reminded to continue communicating openly with HR.

Professional power should never be a factor in an office romance. It can quickly compromize the integrity of both parties and create real and perceived conflicts of interest. It's the reason Michelle Robinson turned down a date with the law student she was mentoring one summer in Chicago. She and her suitor, a young Barack Obama, chose to wait until his internship was complete before going out with each other.

Romance gone wrong

There's a fine line between appropriate and inappropriate relationships. In order to maintain a stable and conducive workforce, employers must be sure that certain behaviours are not condoned by being passed off as office romances.

For example, there can be a fine line between an invitation to dinner and an unwelcome sexual advance. Employers who turn a blind eye to intra-office coupling (or encourage it) must make it very clear that sexual harassment is an offense which must never be confused with a consensual relationship. 

A Mateen, Vice President HR, DHL Express, says the company doesn't have a written policy about personal relationships within the office. "It's not frowned upon," he says. "Some employees have dated fellow colleagues at DHL and gotten married."

Although the company does not determine what employees can and cannot do with their love lives, HR is careful to prevent colleagues from crossing the line.  "There's no explicit policy addressing office romances, but we do have policies which address behaviours and ethics," Mateen explains. With such measures, a strong message is sent to employees: unwelcome sexual advances are not tolerated.

In most organizations, HR tends to stay out of employees' marital lives. But departments have been known to step in when a a worker is having an extra-marital affair with a colleague in the same organization. In 2005, Boeing Company's CEO Henry Stonecipher was forced to leave after the company's board learned he was having an affair with a lower-level executive. The company maintained that Stonecipher was terminated for breaching a supervisor-subordinate relationship, but insiders pointed to the fact that he was also married at the time.

On paper

If your staff are professional, engaging in an office romance should not affect their performance or competency on the job. However, if employers are concerned that office affairs may be disruptive, there are rules they can establish.

Including an anti-fraternizing clause in employee contracts is one option. A clause would explicitly state that colleagues should not engage in romantic relationships with each other. Such clauses already exist in many employee contracts but they often pertain strictly to supervisor-subordinate relationships.

Even though an anti-fraternizing clause would establish HR's stance on romances between colleagues, there's no guarantee that it can prevent relationships from forming altogether. Employees say HR should understand that people will socialize and begin dating whether a sentence in the employee contract permits it or not. The more realistic solution, most suggest, is to foster open communication.

'Love contracts' are another popular option. An official document signed by both parties stating that they are in a consensual relationship will greatly minimize the risk of sexual harassment claims down the line. Additionally, organizations may include guidelines on appropriate behaviour in the office.

5 most popular industries for intra-office romances

Are you looking for love at work? It could all come down to your industry. According to a study by Office Click, employees are most likely to date each other in these fields:

  1. Media
  2. Entertainment
  3. Marketing
  4. Law
  5. Consulting

HRM Online forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

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