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Getting to the Heart of Workplace Romance

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Valentine's may be the one day Cupid comes to mind, but not to worry - he's a year-round regular in most workplaces. Various studies reveal that close to 80 percent of employees are involved in or knew someone who is involved in a workplace romance. In fact, workplace romance is so common, research indicates that one-third of all relationships begin at work. Unfortunately, many of these beginnings end there as well - and as many can attest, employees' heartaches can easily lead to major employer headaches. Read on to learn what experts suggest.

In Good Times and In Bad
Generally, workplace romances that are ongoing and going well pose few or no problems. It is when the relationship turns rocky or ends that trouble usually starts. When asked to list the most possible outcomes of workplace romance, the HR Managers interviewed by the Society for Human Resource Management mentioned the following:

  • marriage (55%)
  • complaints of favoritism (28%)
  • claims of sexual harassment (24%)
  • decreased productivity of those involved (24%) or of co-workers (11%)
  • decreased morale of co-workers (16%)

And when the romance ends, HR Managers anticipate complaints of:

  • retaliation (17%)
  • stalking (12%)
  • physical violence (5%)

To some employers and HR Managers, the possibility of unhappy outcomes make stringent measures against workplaces relationships seem justifiable. On the other hand, many experts warn that policies implying that workplace romance is a problem are just as imprudent. "For one thing," says HR supervisor Gary Cole. "If we openly prohibit romantic relationships between employees, we run the risk of being accused of invasion privacy. We are also trying to avoid the possible consequences if employees hiding their relationships. Often, this results in employers being in the dark until it's too late - when legal, morale and professional repercussions can no longer be avoided."

Right for Romance?
"Ultimately, we'd be better off if the energy spent trying to regulate workplace romance was instead spent trying to find a way to give employees their personal lives back," says author Allan Halcrow.

Halcrow may have a point. Various statistics show that romance in the workplace is all but inevitable. According to the American Management Association, more than eight million new office romances start each year. This study was done back in 1994 and experts believe the number has grown dramatically since.

With more and more employees now waiting until they're older to get married, workplaces now have more employees who are single and eligible for a longer period of time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also points out that women now comprise 46% of the American workforce. This nearly equal proportion means increased contact with eligible potential partners for both male and female employees.

Longer work hours are another factor. BLS says at least one in 10 American employees work over 60 hours per week. When added to the increasingly popular 'team' concept - which encourages close working relationships between team members who probably share the same job pressures, similar projects, and educational and socioeconomic backgrounds make - these factors make for a romantically conducive environment.

Be Still, My Beating Heart
So how do you make sure those love-struck employees don't eventually strike out against each other - or worse, the company? No matter what stance your company takes regarding workplace romance, many experts recommend the following basic precautions:

If you haven't done so, implement, disseminate and unconditionally enforce policies on dating and family relationships in the workplace to promote uniform treatment of all employees. Have a legal professional review these policies to ensure compliance with federal, state and local laws.

Be on the alert for potential problems stemming from a workplace romance involving one of your workers, but at the same time, limit your involvement in employees' love lives to areas that directly affect the company (job performance, workplace morale, etc.). Focus on the potential or actual effect of each specific relationship, not the motivation behind it.

Encourage employees to promptly report any harassment they experience or observe and follow your company's procedures for reporting and dealing with sexual harassment complaints. Don't retaliate or allow any of your employees to retaliate against employees who file any sort of complaint related to a workplace romance.

Exercise caution and common sense in your own personal relationships with employees, making sure that they don't have the potential to deteriorate into a lawsuit. Document everything.

Have Any of the Following Resulted From a Workplace Romance?
  > 300 Employees < 300 Employees Average
Marriage between those involved in the romance 68%* 41%* 55%*
Complaints of favoritism from co-workers of those involved in the romance 34% 21% 28%
Claims of sexual harassment 33% 14% 24%
Decreased productivity by those involved in the romance 23% 25% 24%
Complaints of retaliation when the romance ended 24% 10% 17%
Decreased morale of co-workers of those involved in the romance 17% 15% 16%
Complaints of stalking when the romance ended 17% 7% 12%
Decreased productivity by co-workers of those involved in the romance 12% 11% 11%
*Figures represent percent of all respondentsSource: Society for Human Resource Management Workplace Romance Survey (1998)
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