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Tips About Dating and Romance at Work

What’s Love Got to Do With Office Romance?
What’s love got to do with it? Quite a lot, actually. To answer Tina Turner’s proverbial question, I checked out current research on workplace romance. If it’s just about sex, a dalliance, an extramarital affair, or a relationship to move an individual up the career ladder, coworkers and companies tend to frown on love relationships in the office. If a couple is genuinely serious about dating and building a relationship, popular opinion is more favorable.

After all, where can you meet that special someone anymore? With the amount of time people spend working, and the increasing percentage of women in the workforce, where else is a couple to meet?

Traditional meeting places such as church, the neighborhood, family events, and leisure time activities do not present the same pool of candidates as they did in earlier times. In contrast, the office provides a pre-selected pool of people who share at least one important interest.

People who work together also live within a reasonable dating distance, and share a location, so they see each other on a daily basis. Coworkers in similar jobs may also be approximately the same age, and share similar interests both inside and outside of work.

Workplace Romance Policy
Workplace romance is a worry to employers, but it is not the major faux pas, it may have been in earlier years. In fact, a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Romance Survey found that most companies surveyed do not even have a formal, written, romance policy.

Of the 617 members who responded to the SHRM survey, 72 percent do not have a written policy; 14 percent say they have an unwritten, but well understood, norm in their workplace. Thirteen percent do have a policy.

In the SHRM survey, 55 percent of the HR professionals responding said that marriage is the most likely outcome of the office romances they have experienced. Other studies have reported a higher level of productivity in dating couples at work.

Respondents who discourage, or the seven percent who forbid, dating in their workplace, cite concerns with potential sexual harassment claims, retaliation and workplace disharmony if the relationship should end. They are concerned about potentially lowered morale and the productivity of both the dating couple and their coworkers.

Research on Dating, Sex, and Romance at Work
In the Journal of Management, May-June, 1998 issue, Gary N. Powell summarized the research that has been conducted over the past few decades about office romance. (He finds that this research has not been pursued with enough vigor by organizational behavior scholars, by the way. He says he reviewed the "meager scholarly literature on the subject to date.")

He found that "at some times, workplace romances present a threat to organizational effectiveness through their negative effects on participants and coworkers. At other times, workplace romances enhance workplace effectiveness through their positive effects on participants.

"Two kinds of romances have the most damaging effect on group morale and organizational effectiveness, (a) hierarchical romances in which one participant directly reports to the other, and (b) utilitarian romances in which one participant "satisfies personal/sexual needs in exchange for satisfying the other participant’s task related and/or career-related needs."

Additionally, "Forty-one percent of employed Americans ages 25-40 have admitted to having engaged in an office romance, according to a joint survey sponsored by Glamour magazine and" The study states further that respondents had the most problems with romance when a manager dated a reporting staff person.

In an SHRM white paper, Andrea C. Poe, an HR freelance writer, found that adulterous affairs were a problem in some workplaces. From a recent survey of several thousand employers and employees, she states that inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace is also common on company time and at company locations.

Three Recommendations About Office Romance
Organizations walk a fine line between ensuring employee productivity and interfering in the private affairs of their employees. Powell, in the cited study, states, "that policy makers in most organizations believe that workplace romances cannot be legislated away and should be ignored unless they present a threat to individual, group, or organizational effectiveness.

"Decision makers in most organizations recognize that some form of managerial intervention is required when a workplace romance presents a serious threat to the conduct of work or group morale."

As an HR professional, you also want employees to perceive your staff members as advocates for their well-being and high morale, not as the rule-making, interfering, systematizing arms of management.

With both of these concerns in mind, I suggest you take the following actions.

Provide Training About Work Romances
Provide training for supervisors and managers about how to discreetly address overt sexual behavior in the workplace. You will also want the supervisors comfortable coaching the dating couple if the relationship results in lowered morale and productivity for themselves or coworkers.

Additionally, Powell’s study of the literature found that workplace romances are particularly "hazardous for gay and lesbian employees due to negative reactions to homosexual relationships in general." Supervisors will need to know how to address these issues should they arise.

Office relationships are often the focus of intense gossip, so supervisors need to know how to keep their ears open for work and career damaging behaviors. Supervisors need to know the appropriate disciplinary actions to take if the romance derails and resultant employee behavior disrupts the workplace. If romance becomes sexual harassment, supervisors need to know, working in concert with HR, what to do to take immediate action.

The SHRM study found that only 12 percent of the surveyed organizations provided training to managers and supervisors about how to manage a workplace romance. I think this is a mistake; take the time to make supervisory staff as comfortable as possible before the predictable romance crops up.

Broadcast Your Sexual Harassment Policy
Have a formal, written sexual harassment policy that is posted, appears in the employee handbook, and is listed on all company policy documents. The sexual harassment policy should address how a sexual harassment claim will be handled. Train all employees that the company has zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Provide information about the consequences of such behavior on their continued employment.

At the same time, employees need to understand that it is okay to ask a coworker out on a date. Harassment occurs when the employee indicates no interest and the unwanted attention continues. All employees need to understand where the line occurs. Most organizations ask employees to sign a document indicating they understand and will abide by the sexual harassment policy.

Develop an Appropriate Relationship Policy About Office Romance
You may want to think about your organization culture and the work environment you want to provide for employees. Are there certain romantic situations you want to prohibit or, at least, have a policy in place for addressing? I would never recommend a policy that prohibits dating, sex, and romance entirely. You give people something to push against and guarantee that all relationships will be covert.

Given the literature about studies that have been done in workplaces, I recommend that you institute a policy that prohibits a supervisor 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.

You expect that office romances, relationships, or affairs will be kept separate from the work environment. The organization will not tolerate sexual liaisons and sexual behavior at work. Spell out the consequences if the romance is negatively impacting the workplace.

Advice for the Couple in a Romance at Work
If Cupid strikes and you find yourself attracted to a coworker, these actions will minimize any possible damage to your career.

  • Know your organization’s written and unwritten policies about romantic, sexual, extramarital, or dating relationships.
  • Keep the relationship private and discreet until you are ready to publicly announce that you are a couple.
  • Behave discreetly in the workplace. Keep public displays of affection off limits at work.
  • Limit the number of people at work with whom you share this confidential information.
  • If your position and responsibilities require you to work together, attend the same meetings, and so on, behave professionally at all times. You are encouraged to be yourself, maintain and speak your continuing opinions, exhibit the same skills, and conduct yourself in the same manner as you did prior to the relationship.
  • Discuss, as a couple, the potential impact of your relationship on your work. (Will one employee have to leave a department or the company? Will your organization respond favorably to your relationship?) Know your company, and make a plan before the organization requests one.
  • Be happy and build a successful relationship that adds value to the world; produces well-adjusted children, should you choose to have them; and that adds great value and happiness to your life all through the years.
  • Love, sex, and romance in the workplace will likely increase as time goes by. Expect these relationships; be prepared in advance. And, if the SHRM study participants provide figures that are typical of HR offices worldwide, get ready to attend a whole lot of weddings. (Which reminds me: what’s your policy on people soliciting money for group gifts?)

From Susan M. Heathfield, Your Guide to Human Resources.


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