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Office Romances Can Be a Big Problem for Employers

Cupid in the cubicle can be a problem for employers who are unprepared to deal with the
fallout from workplace romances.

With Valentine's Day looming, experts warn that many employers are caught by surprise by the ripple effects of intra-office relationships, which can demoralize staff and spread envy and resentment.

The problems range from the serious, such as a messy breakup between a boss and a subordinate, to the less obvious, such an exchange of risque e-mails or a kiss in the hallway
that can distract colleagues and hurt productivity.

"People are a little sloppier around Valentine's Day," said Debra Mandel, a psychologist and author on the subject of office relations. "They might let the relationship out of the box more."

Employers are not just at risk when a staff member becomes romantic with a supervisor, which can lead to claims of sexual harassment. A soured relationship between peers also puts the
company at risk if it leaves one of the workers feeling harassed at work.

Companies may be at risk even if the office relationship ends well, said Shanti Atkins, president of ELT, which offers online ethics and legal compliance training. She cites the example of Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's single mayor who recently admitted having an affair with a married staff member, and the impact it could have on staff in city government.

Hostile Work Environment

She said it could create the impression "one has to sleep with the boss to get ahead," and an employee could sue, claiming it created a hostile working environment.

A recent poll by Spherion, a workplace recruiter, shows that nearly 40% of U.S. workers have dated an office colleague.

The same survey also showed that 84% of U.S. workers said their employer did not have a policy covering office romance or they were not sure if such a policy existed.

In part, that reflects the difficulty employers face in balancing the need to maintain a comfortable work atmosphere with employees' right to privacy. Experts say many employers
decide it is easier to do nothing.

"As long as people are professional in the office, it's no one's business what people do outside the office," says Barbara Pachter, who writes about business etiquette.

Enforcing a policy that forbids office dating could drive some staff to quit. Also, like decrees that ban Internet surfing at work, rules against dating co-workers risk being considered frivolous by staff and could undermine a company's authority.

Follow a Romance Code?

"People don't follow the dress code so how will you get them to follow a romance code?" Pachter said.

Instead, experts suggest companies educate staff about what is considered appropriate behavior at the office and incorporate it into training.

"You want to set basic guidelines, such as keeping the interaction out of the office," said Ayana Brooks, an associate at Meyer Suozzi English and Klein, a law firm that specializes
in sexual harassment claims.

Proper training can alert supervisors to issues that are born out of office romances but extend to more serious problems. The recent case of astronaut Lisa Nowak, accused of being obsessed with another astronaut to such an extent that she stalked and attacked a perceived romantic rival, might have been prevented if colleagues had been trained to tell
supervisors about unusual behavior, Atkins said.

"My prediction on that case is that as news trickles out there will be reports of people knowing about a lot of cumulative behavior over time," she said. "There is a lack of reporting from employees on these issue. That's the high price of silence. The only way to get these addressed is to get at them early."