Dealing With Romantic Relationships in the Workplace
What's love got to do with it? Quite a lot, actually. In checking out current research on workplace romance to answer Tina Turner's proverbial question, the answer is, it depends. If it's just about sex—a dalliance, an extramarital affair or a relationship entered into with the intention of moving up the career ladder—coworkers and companies tend to frown on love relationships in the workplace. But when a couple is genuinely serious about dating and building a relationship, popular opinion is more favorable.
How Coworkers React
Amy Nicole Salvaggio, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, conducted a study of nearly 200 full-time workers in a variety of workplaces. Her findings indicated that most respondents do not mind seeing a romance develop between two unmarried colleagues.
They do object to relationships in which one or both coworkers are married to someone else, however, and they also object when the relationship is between a supervisor and his or her direct report.
Andrea C. Poe, an HR freelance writer, also found in a Society for Human Resource Management white paper that adulterous affairs were a problem in some workplaces. From data gathered from a Vault.com survey of several thousand employers and employees, she determined that inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace is common on company time and at company locations.
Workplace Romance Policies
Considering the amount of time most people spend working, where else is a couple to meet? Traditional places like church, family events, and leisure time activities don’t present the same pool of candidates as they did in earlier times.
The workplace provides a preselected pool of people who share at least one important area of common ground. People who work together also tend to live within a reasonable dating distance, and they see each other on a daily basis. So should romance be discouraged?
In early SHRM surveys, 43 percent of HR staff said that they had experienced office romances in their workplace. In other surveys, 55 percent of the HR professionals who responded said that marriage is the most likely outcome of the office romances they experienced. Other studies have reported a higher level of productivity from dating couples at work.
And yet, an SHRM workplace romance survey found in 2013 that 42 percent of companies had developed a formal, written, workplace romance policy. According to Dana Wilkie, an online SHRM editor, periodic surveys by SHRM show that 99 percent of employers with romance policies in place indicate that love matches between supervisors and staff members are not allowed.
That’s up from 80 percent in 2005, and from 64 percent in SHRM’s 2001 Workplace Romance survey. Almost half these policies—45 percent—forbid romances between employees of significantly different rank. This is a big jump from 16 percent in 2005.
Many organizations forbid intimate relationships even outside supervisory relationships. Thirty-three percent of organizations forbid romances between employees who report to the same supervisor, and 12 percent won’t even allow employees in different departments to date.
Romances Between Clients or Customers
The SHRM research also found that some companies forbid hookups between their employees and clients or customers, and 11 percent forbid romances between their employees and employees of their competitors.
HR and Management Concerns
Respondents to the SHRM surveys who discouraged or forbade dating in the workplace cited concerns with potential sexual harassment claims, retaliation, claims that a relationship was not consensual, civil suits and workplace disharmony if the relationship should end.
Depending on the discretion of the dating couple, gossip in the workplace can become rampant and disruptive. They also worry about losing valuable employees who might seek employment elsewhere if the relationship ends.
Tips for HR Professionals
One SHRM study found that only 12 percent of the surveyed organizations provided training to managers and supervisors regarding how to manage workplace romances. A good first step would be to advise supervisors and managers as to how they might discreetly address overt sexual behavior in the workplace.
Office relationships are often the focus of intense gossip, so supervisors need to know how to keep their ears open for damaging behaviors. Supervisors should understand the appropriate disciplinary actions they should take if a romance derails and disrupts the workplace as a result. If romance becomes sexual harassment, supervisors should know what to do to take immediate action—this can be a legal hotbed, so training should be significant and cover all bases.
Make sure that your employees are aware of all the rules and policies regarding workplace romances as well. A policy that prohibits dating, sex, and romance entirely is not recommended. Any policy that is seen as onerous, overreaching or intrusive will just encourage stealth dating.
Policies are developed to guide employees in creating a legal, ethical, harmonious workplace, not to control the bad behavior of a few. You might consider a policy that prohibits supervisors from dating any employee who reports directly to him or her. The policy may also state that you expect staff members to behave in a professional manner while dating.
Let your employees know that you expect that office romances, relationships or affairs will be kept separate from the work environment. Your organization will not tolerate sexual encounters and sexual behavior at work. Spell out the consequences if the romance is negatively having an impact on the workplace.
If You’re Involved in a Workplace Relationship
Regardless of whether your employer has a workplace romance policy in place, you’ll want to keep your relationship off workplace radar as much as possible. If you and your partner have contact on a regular basis, keep the contact professional. It’s unprofessional behavior that causes problems.
Avoid talking privately in corners or behind closed doors, regularly eating lunch together without other coworkers, and—above all—touching. Limit the number of coworkers with whom you share this confidential information.
Know whether you’re required to report a dating relationship to HR. Don't blindside your HR staff. They can help you with gossip control and with understanding what is expected and appropriate in your workplace. Give them the opportunity to help.