Office romances are situations in which two members of a business establishment—whether coworkers in an office or on a shop floor—become romantically linked with one another. For businesses of all sizes, such developments can complicate business operations. After all, office romances that go awry can not only result in emotional pain for one or both of the principals involved, but can also trigger losses of workplace productivity that directly impact on the business. Of course, office romances that go fabulously well can have the same bottom-line impact on a company if the couple spends an inordinate amount of work time courting one another. These concerns are often heightened in small business establishments, which feel such losses of personnel and productivity more acutely than do larger companies.
But most companies operating today recognize that attempts to neutralize or forbid office romances are probably doomed to failure. "Concerns about invading individuals' privacy—as well as the recognition that, human nature being what it is, people are going to get involved with their co-workers no matter what their companies dictate—lead some employers to throw up their hands in despair," noted Judy Greenwald in Business Insurance. Moreover, some observers—consultants, small business owners, and CEOs alike—take a more benign view of the phenomenon, arguing that most office romances do not have an appreciable negative impact on business operations. In fact, defenders of office romance sometimes argue that the practice can actually improve workplace performance in such areas as morale, cooperation, and work force stability. They argue that the ultimate impact of an office romance on a business is often predicated on the fundamental nature of the relationship.
CONDITIONS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO OFFICE ROMANCE
The workplace's status as fertile territory for office romance is well-entrenched in American society, particularly in today's business and social climate. "Work-related interaction gives people the rather unsuspecting opportunity to get acquainted with another's ideas, feelings, ambitions, interests, mannerisms, values, preferences, and personal habits—the very things we examine on a more conscious level when engaged in such mating rituals as dating," wrote Joseph D. Levesque in The Human Resource Problem-Solver's Handbook. "When people's work bring them together in close association with each other, the stage can easily become set for unconscious development of attraction, whether it becomes the product of a lengthy and involved project, a singular business trip, or sporadic but intense contact with each other." Social scientist Marcy Crary, writing in Organizational Dynamics, concurred that the workplace is replete with conditions that foster intimacy: "Most of us have been socialized into thinking of intimacy and work as two separate compartments in our lives; intimacy takes place at home and work takes place at our place of employment. But for many people the realities of day-to-day experiences belie these rational arrangements of our worlds. Working closely together can create a sense of intimacy between people, or the creation of intimate relationships may be essential to performing the task itself."
Lisa A. Mainiero, author of Office Romance: Love, Power, and Sex in the Workplace, noted that larger societal factors also have come into play. One reason for the increase in workplace romance, she contended, "concerns security, old-fashioned comfort, and safety. With the difficulties involved in meeting people of kindred spirit, and the rampant fear of sexually transmitted disease, we are more comfortable establishing relationships with those whom we already know well. We feel safer, more secure, and more knowledgeable about dating a coworker than, say, someone we meet at the local bar on a Saturday night…. Another reason is propinquity. The modern-day office has taken the place of church, neighborhood, and family networks in bringing people together. We choose employers today not only because we are challenged by a new and exciting job opportunity, but also because we genuinely will like the culture of the company and the people with whom we will work." Indeed, academic studies indicate that future spouses are more likely to meet at work than in school, neighborhood, or other social settings. Finally, feelings of attraction between coworkers are inevitable because of human nature. As one executive told Mainiero, "You don't turn off your feelings of sexual attraction just because you're walking through an office door. We are all human, and our hormones don't shut off between nine and five."
KINDS OF OFFICE ROMANCE
Each office romance is unique, but in general, business consultants and social scientists point to several basic types, each of which have are likely to have a different impact on business operations.
RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN MENTORS/SUPERVISORS AND SUBORDINATES These kinds of office romances, which are often cited as among the most potentially damaging of workplace relationships, are also more likely to involve small business owners—who, after all, are usually the ultimate boss of a business enterprise. "Boss-subordinate relationships bring out the worst of the risks associated with office romance," observed Mainiero. "Hierarchical relationships—or any relationship where there is power inequity—can be exploited or manipulated. Sex can be traded for promotion. But it is only those with power who can recommend career assignments, promotions, raises, and favorable projects; peers cannot do so. It is for this reason that boss-subordinate or mentor relationships should be strictly avoided." She also pointed out that such relationships can cause morale problems among other employees in the small business, who may feel that the relationship is creating unequal treatment in terms of tasks, opportunities, etc. This perception of favoritism, whether legitimate or not, can have a devastating impact on a small firm's productivity and underlying health.
RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN PEERS Office romances between peers in a business—whether they are partners in a business or entry-level employees—do not have the same perils as do boss/subordinate relationships, but they are obviously not without risk. Romances that end badly can result in strained office atmosphere, loss of productivity, and even, in some cases, the departure of valued employees.
FLINGS Flings are basically short-lived romantic entanglements. The repercussions of such behavior can vary tremendously within a business, depending on the emotions and goals of the principals involved, their "post-fling" attitudes, and the degree to which the fling becomes common knowledge, either within the office or in their personal lives (especially if a spouse is involved). Some flings may transpire with no ill effects, while others—especially if the small business owner is directly involved—can wreak heavy damage on a business.
LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS Most people—small business owners, managers, and employees alike—enter into office romances in the hopes of building a long-term relationship with the other individual, and in some instances this can actually take place. "This relationship," wrote Levesque, is "the one everyone admires and hopes …will flourish into a permanent, meaningful bond."
EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIRS The above-mentioned types of office romances can have a significant impact on the workplace, but the fallout from extramarital affairs is often most deeply felt in the homes of those involved (although they can often take a big toll in the office as well). Extramarital affairs, when discovered, often result in the dissolution of marriages, which in turn can cause significant havoc in a worker's (or a business owner's) relationship with children, living arrangements, state of mind, etc. Within the office, meanwhile, such affairs can cause considerable problems in terms of morale and productivity. Once again, the impact of this kind of office romance can vary considerably, depending on the identities, goals, and state of mind of those involved. The positions held by the principals involved is another vital factor. A business enterprise is far more likely to be damaged by an extramarital affair between the owner and a key employee than one in which the principals are two part-time employees.
DISPARATE VIEWS OF OFFICE ROMANCE
Assessments of the dangers of office romance vary dramatically. Some observers view it as a wholly undesirable condition that should be avoided by business owners and managers if at all possible, while others view it as a potential positive development, provided that the relationship lies within certain parameters. After all, a relationship that is marked by nepotism concerns or features a married person who is committing adultery is far more likely to raise eyebrows than one between two single people who have no reporting relationship with one another.
Some analysts, business owners, and managers view office romances in almost entirely negative terms. "While there may be a small percentage of workplace romance liaisons that have pleasant and fulfilling culminations (usually marriage), these situations are typically infrequent to those that become painful and end that way," claimed Levesque. "For the organization there is loss too. Inevitably there is a decline in performance, be it productivity, decisions, objectivity, or morale. There also evolves the disruption of working relationships, the emergence of rivalries, inappropriate disclosure of organizational information, damage to the company reputation, and all too frequently having to release an otherwise valued employee."
Other observers, however, are far less critical of the practice, and suggest that many such relationships can actually improve a company's performance. Management consultant Kaleel Jamison, for example, indicated in Personnel Administrator that "[sexual attraction] may be disruptive, but …if properly managed, it can be not disruptive but actually energizing and productive within the organization." Mainiero agreed, although she noted that "it is true, as popular opinion suggests, that there are a number of risks and disadvantages to a poorly conducted, unprofessional, [or exploitative] office romance. This cannot be denied. But it is equally true that some romances, under certain limited conditions, can be quite beneficial—in terms of corporate morale, employee motivation, and departmental productivity."
DEALING WITH OFFICE ROMANCES
Most experts believe that banning dating among employees is not a reasonable solution, although exceptions can certainly be made in instances where one of the principals involved has a supervisory role over the other. Restrictions against inter-office dating can be particularly hard to enforce in small business establishments, where the environment may be more relaxed and work-related interdependencies may be more pronounced, thus encouraging an atmosphere of social interaction.
But companies can still take steps to minimize the risk that an office romance will have a deleterious impact on workplace productivity or morale. Small business owners are encouraged to explore the following:
1. Recognize that employees follow your lead. If you are prone to becoming involved with employees or partners, you can hardly blame your employees if they interpret such behavior as a green light to engage in office romances of their own.
2. Use good judgement. Entrepreneurs who have established their own business may have more opportunities to enter into workplace romances, given their economic status and authority. Self-discipline may be necessary, especially if you are not looking for any long-term commitment (that may not be the case with the other person in the relationship)
3. Establish basic parameters of behavior through written policy guidelines. Policies that specifically outline the negative consequences of engaging in mentor/subordinate romantic relationships are a common example of this. Strongly worded anti-sexual-harassment policies are also encouraged.
4. Provide training for all supervisors/managers about sexual harassment in all its forms. Educate them on the various signs that an office romance is having a negative impact on the company's efficiency (these signs can range from increased workplace friction to unprofessional displays of affection, anger, or other emotions).
5. Do not overstep boundaries of employee privacy. Businesses that are overzealous in attempts to sever, repair, or otherwise react to office romances run the risk of attracting a lawsuit.
6. Do not flinch from intervening promptly in situations where a workplace relationship—either in full blossom or on the rocks—is having a detrimental effect on business productivity. Such intervention can range from informal discussions of performance problems to formal warnings and other disciplinary actions (including termination if serious violations of workplace professionalism have taken place). Consultants note that in many instances, prompt response to workplace issues that arise from an office romance gone sour can go far toward addressing the problem. Unfortunately, many managers and business owners wait until the situation has become messy before they intervene. This delay can result in the loss of valued employees, for some office romances turn so sour that the company faces the unpleasant prospect of removing one of the people from the work area. But whereas larger companies often have the option of transferring a person to another office location, smaller enterprises typically do not have this option; instead, they can only reassign one of the affected people to another project or area of the office, and adopt some sort of monitoring process to ensure that both people behave in a professional manner so as not to damage the business further. Basically, business owners need to make it abundantly clear that workplace performance is their primary concern.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN FLIRTING AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Given the increase in sexual harassment lawsuits that have been brought against companies in recent years, it is not surprising that small business owners have expressed concern about the sometimes blurry boundaries between office flirtations—which may lead to full-fledged office romances—and ugly instances of sexual harassment. While businesses can take certain steps to define inappropriate office conduct, many of them quite effective, stopping sexual harassment is often a more complicated issue if the two people involved were formerly romantically involved. Indeed, some people resort to harassment in the wake of a breakup, while others have been known to level false harassment charges after being jilted. 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.