Rethinking attitudes and policies towards workplace romance

Appropriately, this topic hit with a wave of stories around Valentine’s Day, but I never got around to posting them. When I saw more stories in April, with no holiday to inspire them, I figured this was a recurring theme worth noting.

Start with USA TODAY: “Cupid lurks in cubicles, so what’s a worker to do?” by Del Jones

The team of Amy Henry and Nick Warnock won [a] task on The Apprentice, and when Donald Trump put them aboard his corporate jet for a reward trip to Florida he told viewers: “They may be in love. If so, they had better not use my bedroom.”

That sums up the corporate attitude about office romance. First, don’t do it. Second, that’s a futile request, so don’t make the company clean up the mess. That’s futile, too. . . .

Nick and Amy are one of 20 million workplace romances in progress right now, estimates Dennis Powers, a law professor at Southern Oregon University and author of The Office Romance: Playing With Fire Without Getting Burned. . . .

Office romances often work out. An American Management Association survey last year found that 30% of managers and executives have dated someone at work, and of those, 44% get married.

Only 12% of companies have tried to combat it with a written policy on dating, and most of those only prohibit a supervisor from dating a subordinate. Just one in 100 companies has a written policy prohibiting dating among co-workers.

Even when lovers get along, their relationships can be distracting. A note of praise or recommendation suddenly becomes suspect when it is written by one lover for another. Others worry about favoritism. Read more

The next story is by Aïssatou Sidime, San Antonio Express-News Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News: “Workplace Romances Pose Special Concerns for Employers, Colleagues”

Workplace romances are extremely common given that people spend most of their waking hours on the job, human resources experts say. They can enhance the workplace, but they also pose special concerns for employers. . . .

At larger companies, anti-nepotism policies minimized this kind of fraternization to some extent. Recent tight labor markets sparked some larger employers to drop nepotism policies or encourage employees to recruit their loved ones to fill jobs. . . .

Two-thirds of the managers surveyed said they knew of a workplace romance, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. And a third of all managers admitted dating someone in their workplace in an American Management Association survey last year.

Southwest Airlines, which has a reservation call center in San Antonio, openly lauds its 1,100 couples, equaling 6 percent of its work force. . . .

But occasionally that closeness results in unprofessional workplace behavior.

Managers in the Society for Human Resource Management study revealed that dating couples were most likely to meet amorously in conference rooms, a supervisor’s office, the copy room and the elevator. Personal relationships also can hurt productivity and teamwork [well, yeah, if you’re “meeting amorously” on working time!]. . . .

The most common management crises develop when a manager dates subordinates. . . . But even equally powerful officers and senior executives can create a problem if they’re having extramarital affairs with co-workers, said Carroll Lachnit, editor of Workforce Management, which has researched the issue.

Sometimes romantic co-workers implode. One in three workplace relationships were short-term liaisons, according to the American Management Association. The result can be an uncomfortable workplace or legal problems.

About 20 percent of companies have reacted by adopting official policies governing office romances as of 2002, according to the management resource society [some discrepancy in the figure compared to the previous article?].

Still, employment lawyers have begun encouraging clients to require dating and married couples to sign “volitional relationship contracts,” sometimes called “love contracts,” to inoculate themselves against retaliation, favoritism and sexual harassment claims.

The contracts are a promise that the couple will behave professionally during and after a relationship, will notify the employer of any breakup and, in some cases, waive any claims against the company in the event of an ugly breakup. . . . Read more

Next we have a scientific study from Montana State University:

“MSU Psychologist Takes Workplace Romance from Water Coolers to Scientific Journals,” by Carol Schmidt

Ah, spring. Time for a young man’s heart to turn to … the woman sitting at the next computer. According to one of the foremost scientists studying such workplace romances, that may not be such a bad thing.

Charles A. Pierce, a professor of psychology at Montana State University-Bozeman specializing in industrial and organizational psychology, says scientific data shows workplace romances can result in productive employees. Instead of a blanket policy forbidding them, Pierce recommends workplace romances be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.. . .

Pierce thinks one reason his research has attracted so much attention is the pervasiveness of workplace romance. Studies show that as many as 80 percent of U.S. employees report some sort of social-sexual experience on the job. The workplace is now the most likely place for Americans to meet a romantic partner, Pierce said. . . .

Their preliminary findings are, that under certain conditions, workplace romances can increase productivity, motivation, job satisfaction and involvement. On the down-side, such romances may also negatively affect employee gossiping and managerial decisions.

As a result of his research, Pierce is critical of traditional management policy that unilaterally forbids, and even punishes, workplace involvements. . . .

Pierce said he began his research not because he was involved in a work relationship, but because he happened to thumb through a popular women’s magazine while waiting in line at the grocery store.

“The cover had a headline about a story on workplace romances,” Pierce said. “I was in my second year of grad school (at State University of New York, Albany studying under noted social psychologist Donn Byrne) and interested in the areas of attraction and organizational behavior. I thought workplace romance was a way to combine the two.”

After several years of research, Pierce believes he has just scratched the surface of his topic. He is now broadening his research to examine the effects of dissolved workplace romances, as well as sexual harassment allegations and implications on management policies. . . . Read more

Finally, the family-oriented conservatives at family.org (Focus on the Family) express valid concern about adulterous workplace relationships: “Workplace Romance: The New Infidelity” by Rob Moll

Today’s workplace has become the No. 1 spot for married individuals to meet affair partners. More men and women are breaking their marriage vows by engaging in office friendships that slowly become romantic relationships — relationships that would have been socially impossible just 20 years ago. . . .

In her book Not ‘Just Friends’, Dr. Shirley Glass says, “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. Eighty-two percent of the 210 unfaithful partners I’ve treated have had an affair with someone who was, at first, ‘just a friend.’” From 1991 to 2000, Glass discovered in her practice that 50 percent of the unfaithful women and about 62 percent of unfaithful men she treated were involved with someone from work. . . .

A different work environment has spawned a different kind of affair. Glass says the old idea of workplace romance between a powerful company executive and his single young secretary no longer reflects today’s office relationship. The new infidelity occurs between peers who first become emotionally attached, having no thought of physical involvement. Men and women who work closely together under stressful conditions can quickly become attracted to each other. They often share interests and think nothing of spending time over coffee or lunch getting to know one another. Nevertheless, lunch between married friends, no matter what their intentions, can have unanticipated and dangerous consequences.

One researcher calls this new kind of affair the “cup of coffee” syndrome. Men and women begin with safe marriages at home and friendships at work. As they regularly meet for coffee breaks and lunch, these relationships develop into deep friendships. Coworkers come to depend on these coffee rendezvous, and soon they have emotional work friendships and crumbling marriages. Read more

Whew, it’s late and I’m not sure what wise words of advice I can give. My typical sexual harassment seminar presentation fudges the issue by saying policies in this area should be considered, but complete bans on dating are unrealistic.

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