Managing office romances

Like death and taxes, office romances may be regarded as inevitable. Many employees see more of their co-workers than they do of anybody else, creating opportunities for intimacy that cannot be matched by gym membership or nights spent hanging around in bars.

by Knowledge@Wharton
Last Updated: 21 Nov 2014

Yet although work-based relationships are on the rise, many human resources departments still have no clear policy on dealing with them. Like disapproving parents, they would prefer not to know what their charges are up to in private, and tend to keep their eyes, ears and mouths shut. But given the capacity for such relationships to influence the fabric of office life, this three wise monkeys approach may not be so wise at all.

In a 2005 study conducted by the Wall Street Journal's CareerJournal.com, 40% of employees surveyed said they had had an office romance at some point in their careers - a finding replicated by three other recent surveys. In one of those studies, from website Vault.com, 19% of employees admitted to office "trysts" in locations ranging from the boss's office to "in my car driving to meet a customer".

An article on Knowledge@Wharton, published last week, claims that co-worker Romeos and Juliets (or Anthonys and Cleopatras - surveys show that large numbers of older workers form intimate relationships at work) are becoming more confident about pursuing office romances, and less concerned about concealing them.

It quotes Mark Oldman, co-founder of Vault.com, who argues that the increasing number of TV programmes and films portraying office romances are encouraging the view that such relationships are normal and acceptable.

But there are nearly always consequences, Oldman claims. "Dating on the job is like eating at your desk: invariably, it's going to get messy," he says. "Workplace romances can seem terrific up front, especially to young singles, but if they explode - and they usually do - the shrapnel can land in the workplace and be very distracting."

Given this, the unwillingness of many companies to set or enforce company rules on office romances may seem surprising. According to a SHRM/CareerJournal.com survey, more than 70% of human resources professionals claim their company has no written or verbal policy on workplace romance. Those policies that did exist were split between those that permitted relationships (20%), those that forbade them (31%) and those which permitted but discouraged them (48%).

Speaking to Knowledge@Wharton, David Gebler, president of Working Values, a Boston-based business ethics and training firm, says that firms need to get more pro-active. Citing his own company's policies, he says: "We say we respect the right to employees' privacy, but if employees have relationships, then there needs to be full disclosure."

He says the key to persuading employees to be open about their relationships is creating the right atmosphere. "If you have a healthy, respectful culture, these tend to be non-issues," he says. "It's when corporate cultures are repressive that this becomes a bigger issue, either because people don't feel comfortable [disclosing their relationships] for fear of retaliation or humiliation, or because the company doesn't accept that people are human."

Source: Knowledge@Wharton

Review by: Nick Loney

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