Love at Work: How Should Employers Respond

With Valentines Day having just come and gone, our resident columnist Robin Paggi discusses love in the workplace and how employers can navigate this sometimes difficult and awkward terrain.

Love at Work

Tolstoy said, “One can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work and how to love.” Agreed; however, doing both at the same time can be problematic. More and more people are finding love at work. Indeed, Vault’s 2014 Office Romance Survey revealed that 56 percent of respondents had been involved in an office romance at some point in their career. According to Dennis Powers, author of The Office Romance: Playing with Fire and Not Getting Burned, employers should acknowledge that romance at work is normal and acceptable. Maybe so; however, a poll conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that the majority of business executives still think that office romances are unprofessional and wreak havoc on morale. What prevents employers from celebrating with the happy couple when Cupid’s arrow strikes at work? Here are a handful of reasons:

Public displays of affection. Kissing, caressing, and exchanging longing looks are fun for the couple, but not for everyone else. What’s the harm to others in a few stolen kisses between lovers? According to Joni Johnston, Ph.D. and CEO of WorkRelationships.com, “Nothing makes people more uncomfortable than seeing co-workers smooching.” Except if they walk in on the couple doing more than that. Thirty-two percent of the respondents to Vault’s 2014 survey who said they had been involved in an office romance admitted to having a tryst at work (3 percent were caught, which is significantly less than the 17 percent who admitted to being discovered in the 2007 survey). Talk about your public displays of affection! Rendezvousing employees reported being discovered in boardrooms, engineering labs, stairwells, and office kitchens, which leads us to:

Misuse of company time and resources. Boardroom tables and kitchen counters aside, in-love employees most often misuse the company computer and company time during their romance. One employee at a software company admitted that when he first got romantically involved with a co-worker, “We would instant message probably about half the day.”

The threat of a sexual harassment lawsuit. According to the Vault survey, 20 percent of female respondents had dated their supervisor and 25 percent of male respondents had dated a subordinate. This type of coupling often leads other employees to think that promotions, pay increases, and other perks given by the superior to the subordinate are based on the romantic relationship, which causes resentment in others. Superior-subordinate relationships also make the employer especially vulnerable to lawsuits. While it is true that some office couples eventually marry, most do not. Most dating relationships end, and somebody usually gets hurt. If the superior breaks up with the subordinate, then the subordinate might claim that he/she was forced to submit to the advances of the superior, which is a form of sexual harassment called quid pro quo. If the subordinate breaks up with the superior, the superior might retaliate against the subordinate in some way. Acts of quid pro quo and retaliation are very expensive, and the employer almost always ends up paying the bill. However, the superior-subordinate relationship isn’t the only one that can lead to a sexual harassment lawsuit – anyone (management, rank-and-file employees, customers, and vendors) can be found guilty of creating a hostile work environment through romantic dalliances or comments and behavior of a sexual nature. Again, the employer almost always pays if it happens.

So, what’s an employer to do?

Employers walk a fine line between protecting the workplace and interfering in the privacy of their employees. Most organizations that attempted to ban dating among employees abandoned the idea because of legal restrictions and because it didn’t work. Said Judith Sills, Ph.D., in an article published in Psychology Today Magazine, “As every manager, attractive single, or HR consultant has already discovered, romance at the office can, at best, only be held in check. No policies or lawsuits will ever eliminate it entirely.” I would venture to say that employers don’t want to eliminate romance – they just don’t want it to hurt the workplace. Again, what to do?

First, do what is legally required. For example, employers in California are required to display the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing (DFEH) poster, distribute the DFEH information sheet on sexual harassment (or something similar), and, for employers with 50 or more employees, provide two hours of sexual harassment training to supervisors every two years (new supervisors must receive the training within the first six months of hire or promotion).

Additionally, employers should consider:

  • Having a sexual harassment policy in place and communicating it to all employees on a regular basis.
  • Telling employees that verbal, visual, physical, and electronic conduct of a sexual nature can be construed to be sexual harassment, are inappropriate at work, and will not be tolerated.
  • Letting employees know what behavior is allowed. For example, asking a co-worker out on a date is not a problem; repeatedly asking out a co-worker who repeatedly says no is.
  • Training supervisors on how to discreetly address overt sexual behavior at work.
  • Making it a policy that superiors cannot date their subordinates.
  • Having employees who are involved in romantic relationships sign a love contract that clearly indicates their mutual consent.
  • Telling employees who to contact if they are subjected to inappropriate and/or unwelcome conduct and that they will not be retaliated against for speaking up.
  • Immediately intervening if anyone makes an employee feel uncomfortable.

The above tips can help guide enamored employees as well as protect wary employers.

Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Let’s all be guided by knowledge and thoughtfulness when addressing the issue of love at work.

Robin Paggi is the Training Coordinator at Worklogic HR.

Earlier this week, Robin wrote about lessons for employers in the Brian Williams matter.  Prior to that she wrote about giving employees a second chance. Before that she wrote about making sure the applicant is a good fit for the job and before that about  cure for inappropriate behavior at work. Before that she wrote about cyberloafing, on business lessons from a Christmas story and before that about cell phone policies at work. She has also written for us on rules for holiday parties at work and before that about preventing workplace bullying.

 

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