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The possible negative effects of office romances

The possible negative effects of office romances

By Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., Managing Editor, HRinfodesk.com---Canadian Payroll and Employment Law News, February 2011

Valentine's Day is here again and the subject of office romances is top on the mind of employers. Office romances are quite common and consist of two employees at the same company becoming romantically involved with one another. Many experts put this down to the fact that in today's society, both men and women are spending a much greater part of their lives at work than they ever have in previous generations.

For businesses of all sizes, such developments could complicate business operations. After all, office romances that go wrong can not only result in emotional pain for one or both of the employees involved, but can also trigger losses of workplace productivity that directly impact on the business. The risks that a deteriorating romance poses for a company are undeniable. However, the benefits of happily partnered employees are another possible outcome to an office romance (i.e. increased creativity, performance and motivation). You never know.

Vault.com recently released the results from its annual Office Romance Survey, which showed that many workers are willing to ignore the risks involved with finding love in the workplace. According to the survey, 59 percent of respondents said that they have participated in some form of office romance, whether it was a one-night stand, a casual relationship, a long-term commitment or all of the above. Even the lousy economy isn't deterring office romances: 65 percent of respondents told Vault that it has had no affect whatsoever on their willingness to take romantic risks at work, with only 31 percent claiming that they are less willing now than before the recession.

Concluding from Vault's survey results, people are willing to participate in office romances as long as there aren't negative effects; that is why we wanted to know from our readers: Has your company been negatively affected by workers' office romances? Surprisingly, out of 158 total respondents, the majority (67%/106) say that their workplaces have not been negatively affected by a co-workers office romance. Only 33%/52 of respondents say they have felt the negative impacts of office romances at their company (for details on poll result see table below).

So what are the possible negative effects of office romances?

Concerns range from the potential of harassment to sexual harassment claims to vicarious liability claims especially in the event that one of the parties asserts that he or she was coerced, accusations of favouritism, retaliation and workplace disharmony if the relationship should end. Employers are also concerned about potentially lowered morale and the productivity of both the dating couple and their co-workers.

According to Vault.com,

  • 38 percent of respondents told Vault that they felt they had been in situations where a coworker gained a professional advantage because of a romantic relationship with a colleague or superior. Where relationships at different levels do occur, men date subordinates twice as much as women do (34 percent, compared to 13), and are half as likely to have dated a supervisor (just 14 percent of relationships involve a subordinate male, compared to 24 percent where women are subordinate).

  • 31 percent felt uncomfortable because of co-workers' intra-office relationships.

  • Gossip, it seems, is a major concern when it comes to workplace relationships. “People's gossip took a toll on my managerial capacity. My subordinates were not as respectful as they were once they found out,” one respondent explained. Another said, “It is very difficult to keep yourself out of the gossip pool once rumors begin to spread.

A policy is always a good thing

Most companies recognize that attempts to neutralize or forbid office romances are probably doomed to failure. It is not considered a reasonable solution.

Because of the above potential pitfalls, many firms have policies. Having a written policy allows employers to acknowledge that office romances are a fact of organizational life, but it also sends a strong message that employees shouldn't let romantic relationships affect the workplace.

It would also allow employers to communicate to employees when managerial action should be taken regarding their intra-office dating (i.e. when the performance of co-workers was negatively affected; where the work environment was negatively impacted; and when negative emotion from a break-up affected a work environment previously unaffected by a workplace romance.) Action should also be taken when there is an office romance between a manager and an employee in the same department.

Employers should require employees to communicate to their managers when they have entered in such a consensual romantic relationship without unduly infringing on the privacy of employees; especially if it is between a manager and their subordinate. It will allow you to confirm that a relationship is voluntary (consensual), to inform the parties of your harassment/sexual harassment policies, how to report any complaints, and outline expected behaviour. Document that such a meeting has taken place and what was said. In addition, you are taking measures to protect yourself from legal liabilities from later allegations of harassment/sexual harassment and be able to respond in an informed manner to complaints of discrimination or favouritism by employees who work with either person in the relationship.

Make penalties clear-Define what actions will be undertaken if the policies are violated (i.e. discipline, transfer, demotion, termination).

State outright that any alleged sexual harassment will be handled in a legally proper manner. Refer to your harassment/sexual harassment policies. Managers must make employees aware that the company has a zero-tolerance policy on all forms of harassments including sexual harassment. Information should be provided about the consequences of such behavior. If an office relationship degenerates to such a point, it is important for the business owner to maintain an impartial stance and make sure that decisions are made on the basis of the evidence at hand after a proper investigation has been conducted.

Also train supervisors and managers to avoid workplace romances with their subordinates and to report any inappropriate behavior. If a relationship develops between a supervisor/manager and his or her subordinate, transfer one of them if you can, so there isn't a direct reporting relationship.

By planning ahead, incorporating guidelines on workplace romances into the employment policies, and publicizing these policies, a company can remove confusion and in most cases the concerns mentioned in this article.

A sample policy can be found in the HRinfodesk website in the Library > National > Sample Policies and Forms > Code of Conduct and Employee Behaviour > Office Romance (log in required).



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