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When Love is In the Air, Er, Workplace!: The HR Challenge

By Joseph G. Jarret

office loveIt doesn’t take a degree or vast experience in HR to recognize the fact that workplace romances exists. It is probably equally as unsurprising to learn that, based upon the amount of time people spend at work, the office or workplace is the place where people often meet their significant others. Equally common is the fact that some workplace encounters that begin with romance, often end up becoming unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that often precipitate into claims constituting sexual harassment.

Until recently, a workplace romance was most commonly defined by courts across the U.S. to mean, “Any heterosexual relationship between two members of the same organization.” Recognizing how limiting this definition was, courts have broadened the definition to mean: “Two members of the same organization who are dating, married, having an extramarital affair or otherwise romantically involved with one another in a mutually desired relationship.” Although many of the relationships that fit this definition often end well, far too many can lead to everything from organizational discord to violence.

In her book, Not “Just Friends,” marriage counselor Dr. Shirley Glass has opined that “today’s workplace has become the new danger zone of romantic attraction.” As a result of her research, she has come to the conclusion that the workplace has been referred to as a “natural dating service” because it is where most people spend the majority of their time and is thus conducive to finding a mate. The new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they’ve crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love. In my practice I have discovered that 50 percent of the unfaithful women and about 62 percent of unfaithful men I’ve treated were involved with someone from work.

It is important that the public employer come to grips with the fact that some of the fallout from workplace romances gone awry include:

  • Claims by employees of favoritism.
  • Decreased performance due to distractions.
  • Potential for discrimination.
  • Potential for a spurned spouse or lover to commit violence in the workplace.
  • Disruptions in the workplace due to gossip, filing of orders of protection when love affairs sour.
  • Loss of the entity’s credibility.

Once the public employer comes to stark realization that workplace romance is here to stay, what’s the next step? Traditionally, employers responded to workplace romance by establishing strict organizational policies designed to regulate or prohibit dating, regularly monitoring their employees as well as imparting swift discipline for employees who violated the policy. A more progressive approach, if you will, calls upon employers to take a more casual, humanistic view toward workplace romance, taking into consideration the fact that employers cannot truly regulate love or their employees’ personal lives. Consequently, such romances are not something to prohibit but to manage through education and training.

Still most employers believe, and rightly so, that if a workplace relationship develops between a supervisor and a subordinate, there’s a definite need for the employer to step in. However, in those instances where you are dealing with co-workers who have developed a relationship, the employer only needs to be involved if it becomes a distraction. The most common distractions include public displays of affection, couples spending inordinate amounts of time together during work hours, and co-workers who feel uncomfortable when there is sexual banter in their midst. More than one hostile work environment claim has been filed by third parties made to feel uncomfortable by the antics of co-workers in love.

Despite an entity’s best efforts and regardless of how strict its workplace romance polices, some people will violate an entity’s policy and pair up anyway. Dana Wilkie, an HR expert with The Society for Human Resource Management, inquired of employers the manner in which they have responded to such policy breaches. She reports that, in the past five years, employers who responded to her survey resorted to one or more of the following consequences:

  • Transfer one employee to a different department (34 percent).
  • Send the couple to relationship counseling (32 percent).
  • Draw up a formal reprimand (21 percent).
  • Fire the offending workers (20 percent).
  • Remove a worker from a supervisory position (12 percent).
  • Suspend the employees (8 percent).

Summary 

Public managers cannot afford to ignore workplace romances. The potential consequences for an entity are simply too costly. Managers and supervisors should be reminded of both the legal risks of workplace romance as well as the potential for a decrease in employee morale, productivity and the potential for violence. Further, training in recognizing the signs of a workplace romance is also in order. Love, indeed, is a many splendored thing, but a thing expressed outside of the workplace.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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