Office Romance – A Corporate Perspective

THE OFFICE ROMANCE DILEMMA

Amour…….. !

The French translation of the romantic feeling of love is something most people want in their life at some time or another. Interestingly, many are finding love in what could be considered an unconventional location…the places where they work. Consider the results from Vault’s 2011 Office Romance Survey:

• 59% surveyed engaged in an office romance

• 26% of those romances were with a subordinate

• 18% of those romances were with a supervisor

• 23% of males reported having more short-term flings with co-workers than females

• 40% of workers reported avoiding a potential romance because it would be an “office romance”

Office romance is becoming a more prevalent issue for the world of HR every day. In time for the Valentine’s Day holiday, Astronology takes a peek into this seemingly taboo subject.

In the eras of the Bill Clinton / Monica Lewinsky, Harry Stonecipher / Debra Peabody, and Mark Neverson / Paige Roberts scandals, many are quite concerned about forming any type of close relationship with a co-worker. Still there are many in support of it. Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen, co-authors of the book, Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding – and Managing – Romance on the Job, noted in a 2007 interview what they discovered in research…“about half of all Americans at some point in their career will date on the job, and one in five of them will end up in a long term relationship.”

Upon reflection, this statistic should not be surprising. A third or even more of our lives are spent in the places where we work. Considering the environment of the location, the workplace may seem like a potential spot to find a life partner. However for years, romantic relationships between employees have been shunned or banned. Even though many focus on the positive possibilities of finding that special someone, the main reason why the subject has been risqué even in conversation is because of the potential negative results.

The Negative Side to Office Romance

An often dreaded possibility for office romance has always been the potential of a break-up. Depending on how the relationship fared near its end, the two workers may be able to conduct themselves professionally. However, if the relationship soured at some point, this nuance can spell disaster for the entire workplace. Bickering, vengeful employees should not be tolerated in a professional atmosphere. Former displays of affection could turn into sexual harassment suits. Professional reputations of the co-workers and the organization itself may be ruined. Another negative to office romance is rumor control. The conduct between two dating co-workers can become not only the water-cooler talk, but also a means of distraction from work. Due to these possible effects, organizations suggest avoiding, and may even forbid, romantic office mingling. Others strive to create a solution that is mutually satisfying for all parties.

Techniques to Handle Office Romance

Law firms specializing in employment law suggest organizations create new documentation called the “Consensual Relationship Agreement.” Also called the “Love Contract” – which Michael Scott referred to on The Office during his relationship with his boss Jan – this document involves the two employees and the organization. The whole point is to explicitly recognize the negative possibilities office romances tend to have, and to reach agreement between the three parties on paper to avoid these downsides.

Tory Johnson, a Good Morning America work place contributor offers, “Think of it in terms of a pre-nup. You’re getting married. Someone is basically saying, ‘We’re happy. We hope it works out. If it doesn’t, we know what the rules will be.’ In this particular case you’re saying to the employer, ‘we’ll prevent you from being held responsible for employment issues in the event of a failed relationship. The employer should not have that burden.”

Stephen Tedesco, a partner in the San Francisco office of Littler Mendelson points, “It’s a recurring issue, and frankly will remain so. It protects the employees and it protects the company. Quite a few sexual harassment issues come out of relationships that are consensual, and then cease to be consensual.”

Many view the love contract as a compromise to prohibiting co-workers to date each other. This may be a viable bargain considering prohibiting employee dating is difficult to enforce. Even though employees spend a lot of time at work, not all of their time is spent at the organization. What is done after employees leave the office cannot be controlled by the organization. However, these same activities could spill into the office and affect the organizational atmosphere. Accordingly, many consider these love contracts a feasible technique in handling office romance as it provides protection to the organization from possible litigation.

The consensual relationship agreement should not be viewed as an organization’s lone shield, however. There is still a possibility of a winning sexual harassment suit as a result of an office romance, even with a strong, clear, consensual relationship agreement. Ensuring your organization includes stipulations about office dating in its sexual harassment policy is a possible non-love contract solution. It may be wise to include both a contract and a strong sexual harassment policy. Some organizations include in their policies that the organization is not responsible for the romantic relationship unless it affects performance for the organization. A number of policies include that if a manager decides to stay romantically attached to a reporting employee, the manager will have to switch jobs within the company.

Should your organization consider creating a consensual relationship agreement policy? It would be prudent for all HR professionals to take a look at their organization’s sexual harassment policy first. In doing so, try to determine what aspects have been covered, what aspects need to be redefined, and what aspects need to be discussed. For those considering creating such a document, seeking legal advice is helpful. Publications such as BLR’s HR Daily Advisor’s article on love contracts can provide some additional guidance, including useful steps for HR advisors when introducing the love contract to employees and even some contract wording. The New York Times online also has an article on love contracts that offers a sample love contract for ideas.

Overall, organizations will have to be cautious in providing procedures surrounding office romance. To be overly stringent in policy may cause more work for HR advisors. To be unconcerned could cause intricate damage to the entire organization. Becoming aware of the advantages and disadvantages of all possible solutions will allow an organization to create a practical solution that will successfully address the office romance dilemma.

Author: Jennifer Loftus.