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The Truth of Workplace Romance

In matters of the heart, HR is best advised to let sound judgment drive reasonable policies.

July 1, 1998
Related Topics: Policies and Procedures
Signs in New York's Times Square flash, "Zippergate." Electronic banners in London's Leicester Square guffaw "Ovalgate and Oralgate." Radios and televisions blare interviews and commentary as sophisticated as teenage locker-room jokes. Rapid-fire e-mail messages around the globe share lewd digitally altered pictures of a lecherous chief executive and his naughty playmate.

Welcome to Workplace Romance of the 21st century, where the global village looks suspiciously like a 1990's Melrose Place gathering of co-workers gossiping at the water cooler. Where people from all walks of life are captivated by the clandestine meetings of the CEO of the most revered workplace in the world.

Yet, while Larry King, Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Post revel in increased revenues, HR pros know they're watching a dramatic display of the dangers of office liaisons—threats to worker competence, lowered productivity, demoralized co-workers, secrecy, potential conflict-of-interest, and worst of all, claims of invasion of privacy and sexual-harassment lawsuits. We may titter, but even with all of the problems, we also know it won't go away. People will continue to meet and date at work.

Predictably, because of the glitz and visibility of recent cases, there's a rush to prevent similar bad outcomes throughout every level of society. Predictably, they're often fear-based, knee-jerk reactions that seem as serious as David Letterman's Top Ten Lists. Scurrying to protect themselves, senior executives have attorneys draft agreements for their potential paramours to sign, stating that quarreling lovers will submit to binding arbitration rather than the 90s version of kiss-and-sue. A software firm has a product that offers drop-down lists of choices for HR's preferred responses to office romances. One city agency in California requires disclosure before the first kiss. And rumor has it that a Midwest firm prohibits eye-to-eye contact with the opposite sex for longer than 30 seconds!

Maybe someone at the cosmic water cooler ought to explain that we don't need more rigid policies. Legislating romantic interludes only drives them underground. And, word-on-the-street says about 50 percent of all relationships begin in the workplace. Balancing the individual's right to privacy with protecting employees from sexual harassment and the company from conflict-of-interest isn't a situation for which strict policies are called for. It is a situation that calls for careful consideration, communication and common sense guidelines to make the difference.

Workplace romance: Older than drive-in movies; as popular as "Titanic."
Workplace romances are nothing new of course. Just ask Abigail Van Buren, the woman who has been offering advice for more than 40 years through her Dear Abby column. Here's one of her earliest letters:

DEAR ABBY: We work in a large office. Our office manager, I'll call him Marvin, is a middle-aged family man. The boss' secretary, I'll call her Sissy, is a shapely young divorcee. Since Sissy came to work here, she and Marvin have been spending a lot of time together in the file room with the door locked. What they do in there is their own business, but we're tired of covering up for them when the boss comes looking for Sissy. What do you suggest?


DEAR GANG: Next time the boss comes looking for Sissy, tell him to look in the file room under 'Marvin.'

Says Abby in an interview with Workforce: "Office romances have occurred ever since men and women have been thrown together in the workplace." Indeed, people haven't changed. Their stories still run the gamut from happy long-term marriages to tearful endings and ruined careers. No, people haven't changed, but the workplace has. Employees are working longer hours in environments that encourage teamwork and familiarity. And as work becomes increasingly intense and time-consuming, individuals find themselves with less leisure time for outside activities where they traditionally meet new people. In addition, women are 46 percent of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And many of them occupy visible and powerful positions. All of these factors have transformed the workplace to a meeting den. DILBERT™ creator and workplace observer Scott Adams had this to say about it in a May issue interview in Playboy: "People always wonder why employees at companies like Microsoft work ungodly hours. It's not why you think. If you've got a good mix of the sexes at the office, you have about the same odds or better of scoring at work as you would if you were to go home.... Similar-minded people of mating age are consciously being brought together in a large community."

And the general consciousness seems to be approving of workplace liaisons. Indeed, according to a 1994 survey conducted by New York City-based American Management Association, 30 percent of managers responding acknowledged having at least one office liaison of their own; 74 percent approved of dating co-workers, and 21 percent approved of dating subordinates. (AMA Overnight Fax Poll, Exclusive to Money Magazine: "Office Romance"). Most recently, a survey called Love@Work (of nearly 7,000 subscribers of America Online in its Business Know-How Forum, February 1998) revealed similar findings. Fully 71 percent of respondents had dated someone at work, and 50 percent of the managers said they dated subordinates.

Managing the situation is better than ignoring it.
Although workers' attitudes lean toward acceptance, workplace policy tends to lean the other way. That's because the results of an acrimonious ending are far more consequential for the company today than ever before. The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings changed gender relations forever because they brought forth sexual harassment as a workplace issue, catapulting common sense rules of decency, courtesy and etiquette into the legal arena.

Since then, as stated in the February 4, 1998, Wall Street Journal, there has been a change in attitude by companies regarding workplace romances. A double standard used to prevail that officially forbid relationships, yet didn't interfere unless forced to do so (even if it was between bosses and supervisees). Usually, it was the woman who brought it to the attention of the company—after a sour break-up—and, most often because of the power-differential, she was the one who was fired or quit her job.

Times are different now, and companies are rethinking their positions. They're opening their eyes to the truth—that people meet life partners everywhere—and organizations are better off if HR manages the situation, rather than ignores it. For one thing, employers risk losing valuable workers if they do otherwise. Also, the stronger the prohibition, the more likely people will keep these relationships secret. And the employer who doesn't know about these relationships runs a greater risk of sexual-harassment complaints if the romance turns sour.

"For years, some companies have said, 'This is none of our business; this is a privacy issue.' And others said, 'we must prohibit it in some form or another.' Given the complexity of human behavior in business, neither approach makes any sense," says Freada Klein, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consultant who's a noted authority in the field of sexual harassment. "The idea isn't to get the right rigid or formulaic approach; the idea is to get the right principles in place."

What's the current status in companies? According to a 1998 Workplace Romance Survey conducted of its members by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 72 percent of HR respondents say they don't have a written policy, although 14 percent of them have an unwritten understanding. Thirteen percent have written policies. Of the 27 percent with either a written or unwritten policy, 55 percent permit consensual dating relationships, but discourage them. Consequences include transfer within the organization (42 percent), termination (27 percent), counseling (26 percent), formal reprimand (25 percent) and demotion (7 percent).

And the reasons given by respondents for having such policies? Potential sexual-harassment claims (88 percent); potential retaliation if the romance ends (75 percent); concerns about morale of co-workers (60 percent); concerns about lowered productivity of those involved in the romance (46 percent); and romances at work are viewed as unprofessional (38 percent).

Let good judgment drive reasonable policies.
Why is it so troublesome for employers to work out a sensible framework? "Part of the difficulty is looking at office romance as a separate issue instead of part of a web of an organizational culture," says Klein. "If you deal with office romance in isolation from sexual harassment and other diversity/respect/privacy issues, you're going to cause confusion, and maybe outright contradiction."

Klein, who conducted a 1988 landmark study of sexual harassment for the Fortune 500, [Sexual Harassment In The Fortune 500 or the 1988 Working Woman Sexual Harassment Survey], believes the problem is "... more rules, more rules, more rules, instead of backing up and asking, 'What are our values, our principles, our approach?'"

A good place to begin is to be sure the practice matches the corporate culture. Says Cara Finn, vice president of employee services for Silicon Valley-based Remedy Corporation, "Trying to regulate where people meet potential life partners is nonsensical. People at Remedy work long hours. We have an informal, friendly atmosphere, so we've upped the ante on the chance factor of two people meeting each other. We can't regulate if this happens, but when and how it happens."

Workers are a close-knit group at the eight-year-old software maker's offices. In the spirit of Silicon Valley openness and looseness, it's not unusual to have lots of small parties among the 700 employees. Groups go to Disneyland, play miniature golf, even attend slumber parties. "We work hard and we play hard together," says Finn. "These outside activities help people let off steam and also establish a new level of communication within the group. But it does rev-up the possibility that two people are going to find a synergy between themselves professionally and personally; and then, you're off to the races."

Remedy has a very brief, but written statement regarding romance between co-workers, which was established early in the company's history. It's not a formal, strict business environment, so the practice mirrors the corporate culture. "We put a great deal of value on the company principles. We articulated them in a simple set of tenets to help us make decisions as we go forward," says Finn. Building on these principles, sweethearts can't be in the same reporting structure, and one can't have undue influence over the other's career. That's all. Furthermore, since communication is so highly valued in the company, individuals are encouraged to be open about their relationships, and company celebrations frequently herald a new wedding or engagement among co-workers.

The policy fits the personality of the group. It also recognizes the complexities of relationships by not over-regulating situations that can't be anticipated. "You can't legislate love or emotions. They just happen—whenever and wherever," says Finn. "I feel very strongly about not having rules you can't enforce. You shouldn't try to control things you can't control."

Remedy employees come forward all the time with news of co-worker relationships. They usually tell their immediate managers first. Neither individual would be reassigned unless they were in the same reporting structure or had influence over each other's career. It hasn't happened yet, but if it does, the managers and employees would handle the transfer situation collaboratively as in any work condition in which an individual believes it's no longer conducive to continue in the same department. The well-conceived policy also is designed to avoid the perception of favoritism and bias, and the way it's communicated encourages forthrightness.

"I believe very deeply that if you give people an environment in which they can be their whole selves, you get more. But if you invite them to be their complete selves, then you're going to get the whole package—and that means people will bring their extracurricular life and their home life, but you'll get some wonderful creativity with it," says Finn.

Anticipate conflict-of-interest and sexual-harassment claims.
One of the reasons Remedy's romance policy works is because the organization also has a clear, firm policy regarding sexual harassment. The company has had very few complaints, but takes immediate action when it does so the situations don't escalate. Both managers and employees are taught that one of the best ways to prevent any sort of harassment is to articulate the discomfort to a supervisor promptly. The underlying philosophy assumes everyone is adult and can be honest and forthright.

Not so everywhere.

"A lot of sexual-harassment complaints result from consensual relationships that went bad," says Christine Amalfe, a director [read as partner] at the Newark, New Jersey-based law firm of Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, who specializes in employment law. "If romances are prohibited, the employer doesn't really know what's going on. And a year after a consensual relationship breaks up, some woman walks into the office and says, 'I'm being sexually harassed by my superior.'" For this reason, the more enlightened employers are creating policies that allow for consensual relationships, but require the most senior person involved in a relationship to disclose it if it's between superior and subordinate.

Amalfe's 300-person firm is a good example of an organization that tries to avert disasters by avoiding unreasonable practices. Its romance guidelines, which don't prohibit romantic relationships, are part of the overall diversity policy (although Amalfe says the guidelines could fit under the nepotism section as well). The policy, which is always communicated upon hiring, reads: "Those who engage in those [consensual] relationships should be aware that concerns may later arise regarding the actual freedom of choice of one of the parties, particularly when a superior/subordinate relationship exists between them. In these cases, the firm requires the senior-ranking person in the relationship to disclose the relationship to the co-chairs of the Diversity Committee."

Disclosure serves two purposes. One: "We can confirm with the participants of the relationship that it is, in fact, consensual; that there's no intimidation or pressure on the junior person," says Amalfe. "If the relationship ever goes bad, no one can say he or she was forced into the relationship by the person in the more senior position." The second reason is to be sure that the supervisor has no input into the junior person's workload and raises. As in the case of Remedy, either the reporting structure would alter or one of the individuals would change departments. The policy also requires employees to notify the co-chairs if the relationship terminates or no longer is consensual. "I can't tell you how many times I have served as counsel and start investigating a plaintiff's claim for sexual harassment and find that the plaintiff and the alleged harasser were previously involved," says Amalfe. "One of them decides to break it off. The other continues to pursue and it becomes something other than consensual, and the person claims he or she is being sexually harassed."

Protect competence, productivity and morale.
As worried as managers are about sexual-harassment litigation, the more frequent culprit is lost productivity, lowered morale and loss of valuable workers whom the company values and has expended time and money training. "Companies should always keep in mind the possibility of a sexual-harassment suit and take precautions to protect themselves, so in case it occurs, they have a defense," says Amalfe. "But the bigger expense to employers is people leaving the workforce because they're unhappy that they work alongside someone who's being favored because she's having an affair with the boss."

This usually happens when the lovers are in a reporting relationship, and not when they're peers. Thus another reason for policies to focus on relationships in which power is an issue. "What you're trying to do as an employer is to manage these relationships in a way that maintains a productive, happy workforce on the one hand, and doesn't overly intrude into the employee's private life on the other hand," says Michael Karteles, partner and head of the Employment Law Group at Chicago-based Goldberg, Kohn, Bellblack, Rosenbloom & Marin. "Employers can legitimately be concerned that there's not going to be an objective evaluation process if the supervisor is personally involved. Co-workers know about these things and get worried about favoritism."

Certainly a drop in morale and retention of workers in the same work unit as a person having a workplace romance is an issue. It's also an issue when it comes to the lovers themselves—even if it's not a romance between boss and subordinate. Many times a relationship will start, and as it sours, one or both of the individuals can become distracted, highly emotional, depressed—and eventually, even decide to leave his or her job.

What's acceptable? What's not?
Consider the case of Deana and Nicholas (not their real names). Deana is a 30-year-old PR professional who lives in San Francisco. Her heady love affair with a handsome colleague started simply enough when they went out for drinks with others after work. Next, he sent e-mails to which she responded. The relationship became more and more intense. They were both happy.

At first, it was uncomplicated because they worked on different floors of the building and had different clients. But six months into the romance, it became tense when Deana wanted to move in together, and Nicholas did not. The flurry of e-mails from Nicholas dwindled, but Deana continually checked for them. When they weren't there, she'd become upset and distracted. Her work suffered. Then, his division moved to the same floor as hers. She began to use the stairs and avoid the elevator because it was near his desk. She would ruminate over looks he cast her way. She'd worry that he could hear her on the phone.

"Even things like making a trip to the bathroom became uncomfortable be-cause I'd have to walk past him," she confesses. "I'd think, 'I don't want to see him.' I would definitely go out of my way to avoid seeing him," she says. "If we broke up, I don't think I could work in the same place."

No one could have stopped Deana from falling in love with Nicholas. Indeed, love can't be regulated. Yet, nor should it be ignored. HR can create policies that assure work is being accomplished, co-workers aren't being adversely affected and conflicts aren't taking place. The policies for one company can't be lifted and completely adopted by another because they must be tailored to the type of employees and the corporate culture. And once reasonable guidelines are created, they must be communicated clearly, and frequently, to the staff.

Perhaps love is blind passion. But for the workplace to survive employee romances, HR must take a deliberate, reasonable approach in defining what's acceptable and what's not.

Workforce, July 1998, Vol. 77, No. 7, pp. 42-50.

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