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What’s love got to do with it? Managing office romances

office romances

Valentine’s Day is celebrated each February 14th. It is a day synonymous with love and romance (and candies, and chocolates, and roses … but I digress). An estimated 1 billion Valentine’s cards are exchanged each year. Some radio stations will celebrate Valentine’s Day by playing a marathon of love songs. On others, DJs will play special “call out” songs for their listeners. Songs that have special meaning to the listener’s relationship because they were played at an important moment they want to remember, or because the lyrics hold special meaning to them. I can certainly understand and relate to this. Songs can instantly take you to a special memory or a particular emotion or feeling. Songs can be there to make you feel happy, or even highlight that you are not alone in the sorrow you may feel.

When I was younger I swore that when I broke up with a boyfriend, every song I heard on the radio for a week afterwards was talking to me. Though certainly not true, it was like every other song on the radio was a love song and the lyrics seemed to know just how I was feeling. Whether it was the lyrics or even just the song title, the music spoke to me. As Valentine’s Day approaches, this got me to thinking … If I could make a soundtrack about office romances, what songs would I think to include? 

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs. I look around me and I see it isn’t so. Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that?[1] So here we go. (Sorry, Paul McCartney and Wings.)

When you consider how much time people spend at work and in the office, it is not surprising that relationships of all types form amongst individuals in the workplace. Understandably, people who work together sometimes end up in romantic relationships or intimate situations. Statistics support that approximately 40% of workers have had an office romance. When you spend that much time with someone, you tend to get to know them on a personal level. Discussions can begin innocently enough. For example, a lunch time chat can be as simple as wondering “Do you like pina coladas?  And getting caught in the rain?[2] You know, getting to know the other person’s interests. But office relationships can also develop into something more.

Many believe that when you talk about office romance you are talking about Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places.[3] What needs to be remembered, however, is that offices romances are not wrong or illegal. There are no laws or regulations which prohibit two consenting individuals who work together from dating or having any form of intimate or romantic relationship. The issue is not when workplace relationships between consenting adults go right. Believe it or not, statistics suggest that couples who meet in the workplace are most likely to end up Going to the Chapel[4] and getting married. But those happy stories are not the ones which give Human Resource managers pause or make employment lawyers nervous. Instead, it’s the remaining portion of office romances which pose potential issues and liability for the employer, and the employees.

Sure, everything seems great at the beginning. You find yourself sitting in a meeting looking at your co-worker and thinking to yourself, “I think I love you[5]. You are sure that Love Will Keep Us Together[6]. After all, she loves you. And you know that can’t be bad[7]. Even when office relationships are going well, however, there ought to be cause for concern. The issue with office romances are four-fold:

  1. The impact they have on the work environment: Office relationships of any type can have a negative impact in the workplace if co-workers see subordinates getting preferential treatment. Even the belief of preferential treatment in the absence of actual preference can create a dark cloud of an otherwise happy and productive workplace.
  2. When office romances occur between individuals who are higher or lower than one another on the reporting ladder: Of those workers who say they have been involved in a workplace relationship, one study found 28% dated someone higher or lower on the chain or command.
  3. When the relationship goes wrong: And as stated above, many office romances do lead to marriage. As the saying goes, love and marriage goes together like a horse and carriage[8]. But an office relationship can also be a Bad Romance[9]. Relationships amongst co-workers (whether a casual hook-up or longer-term relationship with takes a wrong turn on the rollercoaster of love) can lead to sexual harassment claims, particularly when the relationship goes wrong and/or ends.
  4. When the relationship ends: Separate and apart from the risk of a sexual harassment claim, going through a breakup at the end of a relationship is difficult enough, but when you have to see that ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend every day in the office it can be a huge distraction and negatively impact productivity of not only the workers involved, but for others in the workplace as well.

With potential for liability high, what can employers do to manage the range of possibilities and risks from I Found Love[10] to You’ve Lost that Lovin Feelin[11]? Some employers have elected to implement a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to office romances. Employers do have a right to govern their workplaces as they see fit, so long as they comply with their legal obligations. Just as there is no law preventing or prohibiting offices romances, there is no law which says employers are required to allow workplace relationships. Unfortunately, from a practical point of view, policies which restrict or prohibit workplace relationships in their entirety do not guarantee an end to inter-office relationships. Instead, practice will tell you that it is more likely co-workers involved in an office romance will take steps to hide it and keep it secret. Choosing to hide the relationship and keep it Just Between You and Me[12] can mean that people focus more on covering up the relationship and less on the work they are assigned or expected to perform. Workplace productivity can also be negatively impacted by rumours regarding the relationship and the concern for associated preferential treatment or opportunities. For each of these reasons, a recommended practice is to recognize that workplace relationships are going to happen and the employer ought, therefore, to be proactive to nip potential issues in the bud.

One practical step to do so is the development and implementation of a Non-Fraternization Policy that impresses the importance of employee compliance with the Workplace Harassment/Sexual Harassment Policy and the disclosure of relationships to Human Resources. Under such a policy, employers can:

  1. Restrict and prohibit all workplace relationships by Senior Management;
  2. Require Managers, Directors and other key employees in a position of influence to disclose personal relationships at work;
  3. Require employees to disclose any workplace relationship with an employee who is higher or lower on the reporting ladder; and/or
  4. Require employees to disclose any and all workplace relationships, including but not limited to any casual, one-time or short-term intimate relationship.

Failure to report a relationship would lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination. Such policies minimize the distraction of hidden or suspected relationships. More importantly, however, they allow employers to meet their obligations to ensure a healthy and safe work environment for their workers, free from discrimination and harassment while providing the employer the opportunity to make arrangements to eliminate or mitigate any conflict of interest, false perception of preferential treatment, or likelihood of a sexual harassment claim if there was a romantic relationship between two employees (whether short or long-term).

In addition, to prevent negative consequences from workplace romances, employers are reminded of their statutory obligation to review their workplace policies and conduct annual reviews and training of Workplace Harassment and Workplace Sexual Harassment policies, as required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

When it comes to employers navigating this Crazy Little Thing Called Love[13], employers are best to maintain a strong commitment to the health and safety of their workers, whether they are In or Out of Love[14]. After all, you don’t want to Give Love a Bad Name[15]. Happy Valentine’s Day.

By Cindy Ingram

[1] Silly Love Songs, by Wings

[2] Escape, by Rupert Holmes

[3] Looking for Love, by Johnny Lee

[4] Going to the Chapel of Love, by The Dixie Cups

[5] I Think I Love You, by The Partridge Family

[6] Love Will Keep us Together, by Captain and Tennille

[7] She Love You, by The Beatles

[8] Love and Marriage, by Frank Sinatra

[9] Bad Romance, by Lady Gaga

[10] I Found Love (Cindy’s Song), by BeBe Winans

[11] You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, by The Righteous Brothers

[12] Just Between You and Me, by April Wine

[13] Crazy Little Thing Called Love, by Queen

[14] In or Out of Love, by The Supremes

[15] You Give Love a Bad Name, by Bon Jovi

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