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Romance In The Workplace

Copyright © 2000-2006, Ethan A. Winning


Almost a monthly occurrence... calls from Fox News, an FM station in Orlando, papers in Dayton, Boston, New York, and Seattle, and freelancers from all over the country calling me about romance in the workplace, policies against dating, and whose got the greater rights... I don’t know when I became the expert, but it must have started when the article, "The Dating Place Moves to the Workplace", was published some years ago, and referred to in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and on CNN. While these calls used to come just before Valentine’s Day, the topic seems to have become ubiquitous and lost its special place in the calendar year.

Evidently, I didn’t cover the topic sufficiently. E-mailers complain about policies which prohibit dating and loudly proclaim that that is an infringement of civil liberties. Others ask, "What ever happened to democratic principles?" And then there are always the "shoot-the-messenger" calls and letters. It is only after the relationship is over that employers and employees willing agree with some of the bases for having some policy against dating in the workplace.

The Corporate World is Not Democratic: I know that this is difficult to understand -- it must be since most of my e-mailers think that democracy and equity are one and the same -- but the corporate world is anything but democratic. Benevolent dictatorships, perhaps. Paternalistic management, perhaps. Maybe even more fair than unfair. But democratic, no. Even with "empowerment," someone always has more power than another. So, don’t call the ACLU: dating coworkers is not protected as any kind of liberty, civil or otherwise.

Two Policies: There are two types of policies regarding dating or establishing relationships in the workplace. First, there is the anti-nepotism policy: "While we appreciate referrals of relatives, we cannot hire when there is or will b a direct or indirect reporting relationship between the parties."

The second policy, nonfraternization, is much more direct and perhaps Draconian, at least in the view of the dating population: "If a personal relationship creates conflicts of interest, causes dissension, interrupts the work flow of the parties or other employees, or creates a negative work environment, one or both parties may be asked to resign from the company." If the company is large enough, the policy might read that one of the parties may be transferred to another department or location. If there are no other locations or departments where the relationship would not be perceived as engendering the same problems as in the initial policy, both parties may be asked to leave.

Discrimination: Hey, isn’t that discriminatory? After all, one cannot discriminate against an employee because of marital status. True, but one, most relationships don’t end in marriage and, two, the anti-nepotism policy is not against marital status, but against conflicts of interests or perceptions of favoritism. (The nonfraternization policy has nothing to do with marital status.)

Why Is a Policy Necessary? There are many reasons for having such a policy. Among them are

  • favoritism
  • perceptions of favoritism (and the ensuing rumor mill)
  • conflicts of interest
  • confidentiality (as in nondisclosure agreements)
  • hostile work environment
  • sexual harassment

Examples: Here’s some real-life examples which emphasize the need for the policy.

Manufacturing firm. Woman is Accounting Manager. Man is sales rep. His travel expenses are always paid first and, when it turns out that he’s cheating on his expenses, both were terminated.

High tech company. Programmer and programmer begin a relationship which fails after three months. When it does, she "stalks" him, won’t leave him alone, leaves Post-It Notes all over his cubicle, and sends hundreds of email to his computer. The relationship not only screws up an entire project that the two were working on, but disrupts the work of others. She’s fired, continues to "stalk" him at home. Bigger problems. Is this still a corporate concern? Well, it was affecting his work, and his work was key to a new product. Ultimately, he had to be terminated as well.

Bank. Male vice president starts dating female teller. Very little discretion is used, and the perception of all employees is that she is getting preferential treatment. (The fact that she was put up for an officer’s title within a month is only "frosting.") But then, when the relationship breaks up and she throws a computer monitor through a plate glass window (in his general direction), it’s the talk of the town for months. She is terminated, but nothing happens to him...even though I suggested that such a lack of discretion deserved a demotion. ’Course, his wife took him to the cleaners...

Another financial institution (not that it matters). Male VP starts dating female AP clerk. They move in together. Six months later, she throws him out and he finds all of his clothes on the front lawn. He confronts her at work. She slaps him; he hits back. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Harassment claim big time! But to make matters worse, another accounting clerk, having to work in the office with the two of them, files a claim of hostile work environment.

Another high tech, this one where the programmers and analysts often stay all night to work on projects. Some even have sleeping bags. Now, pictures of programmers wearing bunny slippers and sacking out in a lounge may be motivating to some, but it should strike fear in the hearts of HR Managers and company officials. In this particular instance, two claims of sexual harassment were filed against one individual. Three others decided not to testify.

Pillow talk. The female HR Manager dates and later lives with the VP of Sales. She tells him everyone’s salary and upcoming promotions. He’s a blabbermouth. Pretty soon the whole company is up in arms.

I’ve got more, some even worse (like the Sales Manager who turned over a complete client list to his "significant other" who just happened to work for a competitor), but I trust that you get the idea just from these vignettes that dating can be hazardous to the health of the company.

Acceptance: Certainly we have to face the fact that the workplace is now the place where we often meet our significant others. The workplace has taken the place of college, discos, and Employees are younger on average, and marriage takes place later. If a relationship begins at work, should you use a "don’t ask, don’t tell" philosophy? That’s probably as effective as the war on drugs.

What do you do as a company? If the examples above don’t scare you, then by all means, leave things as they are. If you want to prevent a problem, however, then establish the fairest policy that you can.

And what do you do as an individual? Well, start with being discreet. If the relationship does become "serious," and there is a policy in place, accept the fact that one or both of you will either have to transfer or be terminated. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the company will accept the relationship if you are open about it, have a strict working relationship while on the job, and do not have a reporting relationship. Perhaps what fertilizes the grapevine fastest is the attempt to hide a relationship which, if open, might be accepted. Most grapevines have root rot, but it seems to be the biggest weed that thrives on garbage.

If you are forced to leave, it might be considered unfair, but it is just another condition of employment that you agree to when you join a company. You can rail about the unfairness of it all, but that’s the nature of the workplace today. Hey, 200 years ago, one of you would be wearing a scarlet letter and the other would be standing in a stock. (True, stocks weren’t volatile in those days, but take the letter.)



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