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Dealing With Personal Relationships at Work: Dating at Work

Digital Library > Operations and Technology > Office management “Dealing With Personal Relationships at Work: Dating at Work”

In the ever-busy world of entrepreneurial business, we are always at work or thinking about work. Where else are we going to meet people who share our interests? Should we date our co-workers or allow our employees to date each other? How do we keep it from interfering with work?

OVERVIEW [top]

Changes in the workplace have made romances between co-workers inevitable. Employees are working longer hours and have less time to socialize outside of work. The exchange of ideas, shared creativity and the teamwork approach fostered in entrepreneur-based enterprises also promote closer connections and lasting relationships — sometimes romantic ones. More than one-third of all employees meet their future partners while on the job, and for many, dating officemates is part of a balanced work life.

Office romances aren’t a business liability as long as there are policies and procedures in place to ensure that employees’ personal lives remain personal and their work professional. The company should also have a policy regarding sexual harassment.

In this Quick-Read you will learn:

  • The pros and cons associated with workplace romances.
  • Strategies for managing in-office relationships.
  • Factors that identify sexual harassment.

SOLUTION [top]

Don’t prohibit employees from dating. A rule forbidding fraternization of co-workers is deemed by most to be invasive, inappropriate and unnecessary. Worry not about curtailing the office romance but about maintaining office professionalism and productivity.

Recognize that romantic relationships between staff members may have a negative impact on job performance. The exclusive nature of a romantic relationship, if recognized, can threaten the involvement of other team members and lead to claims of favoritism or discrimination. Personal problems between the couple can cause strain and difficulties with on-the-job communication, or lead to claims of stalking or harassment. A public break-up could cause other employees to "choose sides," creating tension for the whole office.

Avoid these problems by focusing on employee job performance. With the help of a lawyer and your human resources team, establish some workplace guidelines that specifically define what will happen if performance standards are not met and state how claims of sexual harassment are handled. Make sure all your employees are aware of these policies.

Here are some strategies for managing romantic relationships in the office:

  1. Establish a rule that prohibits an employee from supervising a person they are dating. Encourage everyone to disclose romantic relationships that fall into this category so adjustments can be made to avoid the related risks. Perhaps a change could be made in the reporting or organizational structure.
  2. List any jobs where romantic relationships could jeopardize the safety or integrity of other staff members and make the involved employees aware of those potential risks. For example, a human resource manager dating a department head could be perceived by others as a potential breach of confidentiality.
  3. Talk to employees about job expectations and consequences if performance falters for any reason.
  4. Focus on creating a positive office environment for all employees. This includes developing an atmosphere of trust and respecting the private lives of employees. Encourage them to live balanced lives.
  5. Make it clear to employees that personal lives should be orchestrated outside of the workplace. Flirting or romantic overtures should not happen at work. Communicate your concerns to employees when their personal actions cause professional problems or questions. Allowing the romantic behavior in the office to persist causes strain, tension and discomfort for other employees. It can also lead to complaints of favoritism and discrimination.
  6. Foster communication with your employees without judgment. Don’t pry or question unless you notice performance problems. In many cases, disclosure of their dating relationship can help you create a more productive workplace while minimizing any conflict of interest.
  7. Keep in mind that office romances are not limited to coworkers. Your employees may also be dating your clients, vendors or even employees of your competitor. Make sure your office dating policy anticipates these situations — an acrimonious split between an employee and a supplier, for example, could result in late shipments, production delays or other problems for the whole company.

Avoiding sexual harassment

Flirtation becomes sexual harassment when employee A refuses employee B’s invitations or advances and B persists by asking A out again. Sexual innuendos, jokes or inappropriate physical contact can also be considered harassment. Many variables constitute the legal charge and while not every inappropriate behavior or gesture is intended as sexual harassment, the perception or ramification of the action could technically fit the claim.

Sexual harassment can destroy the cohesiveness of a team and lower employee morale. By fostering fair and open communication with employees, you can identify and handle any issues of sexual harassment and enhance the level of trust in the workplace.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

With 100 employees and an office atmosphere built on teamwork, trust and honesty, Supertracks is reluctant to do anything that could destroy the workplace culture, said human resources director Kirsten Olson. That means any rules prohibiting dating in the workplace would actually destroy the positive feelings and relationships that have contributed to the company’s success. Founded in 1999, Supertracks is an Internet firm based in Portland, Oregon, that enables the legitimate digital distribution of music over the Internet. Employees usually work 12-hour days and often socialize together outside of the office.

Working at the company, there are two married couples and others who are dating, Olson said. So far, the relationships have not had a negative impact on the working environment.

If a situation arose where a manager was dating a subordinate, staff shifts would occur so that the manager would no longer supervise that employee, Olson said. Nobody would be punished or fired. The moves would be made to minimize the conflict of interest and eliminate the power imbalance. To date, that scenario hasn’t occurred.

Nor have there been any claims of sexual harassment, but Supertracks is prepared should an instance occur. Both employees and managers received training about what sexual harassment is and what to do if it occurs, Olson said, adding that it’s important for the employees to know that they are protected and that managers are receptive to their concerns.

DO IT [top]

  1. Develop a policy that prohibits employees who are dating managers or supervisors from reporting directly to them. Encourage employees to disclose relationships of this nature and then have them report to other managers to avoid claims of favoritism or discrimination.
  2. Evaluate the structure of your business, and identify areas of higher risks, in the event of a romantic relationship. An accountant who pays the expense and travel reports of the staff member he or she is dating could prompt concerns of impropriety.

  3. Study your policy regarding sexual harassment. If y ou don’t have one, get one. Examples may be found on the Internet, from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in HR books, or you may even want to request copies of policies from other companies with whom you have contact.

  4. Be sure your harassment policy includes a course of action for people who feel threatened or harassed on a personal level at work. Communicate these steps to employees and make it clear that sexual harassment should be reported and that it will not be tolerated.
  5. If you, as the company’s CEO or owner, are involved with an employee, report the relationship to the supervisor of the human resources department. Your openness will help to dispel rumors and claims of favoritism.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Office Romance: Playing With Fire Without Getting Burned by Dennis M. Powers (AMACOM, 1999). This is more for the romance participants than their managers. Chapter 16, "Companies Are People, Too" and Appendix 1, "Sample Office Romance Guidelines" do provide policy guidance.

Internet Sites

How to Lose Your Heart and Keep Your Job

Love Connections

Romance in the Workplace

Sexual Harassment

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Article Contributors

Writer: Polly Campbell

Carol Kleiman, a nationally syndicated columnist and jobs columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was consulted for this article.

Gary Vikesland, a licensed psychologist, certified employee assistance counselor and an online counselor with Employer-Employee.com, was interviewed for this Quick-Read.

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