Manage the Risky Business of Workplace Romance

Talent recently published an article that should intrigue women and men alike. Blog author Jack Huddleston approaches the touchy subject of dating in the workplace – is it ever OK? There is nothing new about workplace romance, but over the past few years, talent managers have reported an increasing number of office flames.

This year, in an MIT Sloan Management Review study, the Department of Labor reported that 71 percent of working women complained of sexual harassment in their careers; a poll of women executives in U.S. service and industrial companies reported 66 percent have been personally harassed.

Perhaps what is even more telling is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported almost 14,000 cases of sexual harassment and hostile work environments in 2008, the most reported in six years. Over the past 12 years, over $47.8 million in claims have been processed through the EEOC based on sexual harassment claims. Explanations range from an increase in the number of women in the workforce to employees working longer hours and spending more time with their co-workers.

The legalities of workplace relationships are always a major concern. What are the legal implications of having a fling with a co-worker? There are a number of them – first being the issue of sexual harassment. Beyond sexual harassment, the stage has been set for a Title VII complaint. After the fires of the fling have burned away, if one party continues to pester the other party after the breakup, Title VII complaints could be filed.

Office romances put the organization at great risk of litigation. In 2008, 13,867 sexual harassment cases were filed with the EEOC. The EEOC reported a slight decline in 2009, with 12,696 sexual harassment charges being filed. Out of the charges filed with the EEOC, it is estimated that one-third began as consensual relationships that ended in a breakup or bad relationship. The penalties or potential losses for an organization can be prohibitive.

Claims can also arise from third parties. Lawsuits have actually been filed by third parties for inequitable treatment based on the relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate. Some of these charges were based on favoritism which in a very small window of time can lay the groundwork for a hostile work environment lawsuit.

Aside from the legalities, office relationships have an impact on other employees in the organizations’ culture. Role conflicts arise, and can be misinterpreted as favoritism. People judge equitable treatment based on how rewards are distributed. Office relationships can skew the perception of how these merits are received. If a relationship is what is causing the problem, employees may believe that the reward decisions are based on personal relationships and favoritism and not merit.

This perception of favoritism will damage morale and significantly undercut a leader’s role in the organization as someone who can be trusted or is impartial in making decisions.

Office romances will effect or cause damage to the existing workplace norms and mores, not to mention how they will also have an impact on productivity. These romances can cause damage that could impact career development.

For a person in a supervisory role, judgment, integrity, and ethics can be immediately called into question. For a person in a subordinate role, questions arise regarding the validity of promotions or pay raises. Were they based on work performance, or was the relationship the primary instigator?

There are also safety concerns to take into consideration. Love is a crazy thing, and alters the mind and behaviors. There’s always a chance that the rejected lover could get violent in the workplace. Workplace romance is not in decline and will probably only increase . They key is not prohibiting the romances but managing their impact. To learn more about the risks and how to manage workplace romances, click here to read the full article.

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