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On the Job: Workplace romances are management's business

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

By Judy Olian

You've seen it happen -- two people at work falling for each other. Heartwarming? Perhaps. Problematic? Probably.

As work takes up more of our waking hours, and with women participating at record rates in the labor force, it's inevitable that relationships at work often become more than work relationships. Is it the employer's business? Unfortunately, yes.

The Society of Human Resource Management's 1998 survey of more than 600 human resource professionals found that while in most companies there were no formal written policies about "romance at work," more businesses were concerned about such incidences.

Survey results indicate that 13 percent of employers had a written policy to address workplace romances, but 14 percent claimed that they had a "clear understanding" of expected behaviors despite the absence of written policy. A majority (72 percent) did not have a written policy. According to the survey, among companies that have a written or unwritten understanding of workplace romance policy, 55 percent permit but discourage workplace romances, 32 percent have no restrictions on the romance, and 7 percent say that intimate friendships among workplace colleagues are not permitted.

Why venture into such terrain? Because of the risks. Most SHRM survey respondents feared the possibility of sexual harassment claims (88 percent), the potential for retaliatory actions when the romance ends (75 percent), or concerns about the morale of co-workers (60 percent). Some felt they were at risk for lowered productivity among parties to the romance (46 percent), or that the romance might create an air of unprofessionalism in the workplace (38 percent).

These are not hypothetical concerns. Claims of sexual harassment have been triggered because of misunderstood intentions between the parties. Once the romance is over, hard feelings regarding the breakup could cause workplace difficulties or, even worse, vindictive or retaliatory actions, especially if one of the parties is more senior than the other.

There are more subtle concerns, too. It can get messy if considerations related to the romantic partnership drift into areas that should be strictly business or performance based. Case in point: A professional services firm in which one top executive became involved in a romantic relationship with a manager reporting to her. Once the relationship was revealed, the manager was moved into another, less optimal reporting relationship. So far, OK. However, the senior executive could not help interfering in other top executives' decisions regarding her partner's salary. That's definitely not OK.

This isn't good business practice, and that's the underlying reason for employer concerns. Networked and intensive team relationships are critical organizational success factors, and many companies are communities of tightly knit friendships. It's unrealistic to entirely ban romantic relationships from forming within the realities of today's workplaces. That said, there should be clear expectations regarding behaviors and consequences should romantic relationships arise. The governing principle is that the employer's interests are paramount.

Company policy should require disclosure of relationships among work associates once they cross the line between friendship and romance. The company should examine supervisory lines: Are partners to this relationship reporting to each other or in positions to influence work outcomes about the other? If so, one of the partners should be removed from that reporting or work relationship, in consultation with the parties involved. Often, it's the more junior person who is moved because the costs to the workplace are lower.

Can both still be accommodated in the same organization? It depends on the size and flexibility of the organization, and the performance effectiveness of the parties. Accommodations might not be feasible or justified. In other cases, employers might create a different reporting relationship to retain both partners, even if the reporting structure is contrived. Such relationships inevitably evoke awkwardness among the couple's co-workers when certain performance, reward or assignment discussions occur. Both members of the couple must act "holier than thou" in removing themselves from discussions affecting their partner. The critical question is whether the tangible and intangible costs of the accommodation can be justified by the benefits of retaining a talented employee.

By now you're asking why bother, if it's so dicey for employers. Because employers are desperate to attract and keep proven talent, and are used to making accommodations for a variety of reasons to retain that talent. Sure, romantic relationships or marriages among employees introduce unnecessary complications into the workplace, but it can be managed. If it works, such relationships can provide significant benefits, such as the couple's undivided loyalty to the firm and their ability to focus on the needs of a single workplace rather than competing employers.

So, don't look the other way, and don't run. Romance in the workplace is your business.

Judy Olian is dean of Penn State University's Smeal College of Business and specializes in strategic human resources management.

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