More Confident, Less Careful: Why Office Romances Are Hard to Manage

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If everything you knew about office life came from NBC’s serial mockumentary “The Office,” you would be forgiven for thinking romance is the main spice of workplace life.


Pam the secretary and Jim the salesman send flirtatious glances across the fictional offices of paper company Dunder Mifflin; Michael, the regional manager, escapes with his boss, Jan, for a forbidden fling in Jamaica, and straight-laced Dwight and Angela relish the cloak-and-dagger thrill of concealing their mutual passion. But the satire here seems not far from reality — especially when Toby, the long-faced HR representative from corporate, makes his lackluster exhortation that employees must report their romantic relationships to him. “Even a one-night stand?” asks Phyllis, a middle-aged member of the sales team, to the surprise of her co-workers.


“The Office” confirms with satire what recent studies have demonstrated with numbers: Romances shape office life, and human resource departments don’t have much to say about it. But given the potential fallout from workplace relationships, companies retreat on this issue at their own risk, suggest a number of experts. “There is a feeling of resignation among HR people. Mostly they close their eyes and hope for the best,” says Deborah Keary, director of human resources at the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).


In a 2005 study conducted by the society and the Wall Street Journal‘s CareerJournal.com, 40% of employees surveyed said they had had an office romance at some point in their careers — a finding replicated by three other recent surveys conducted by private companies. One of those studies, by career website Vault.com, also reported that 19% of employees admitted to having office “trysts,” with venues ranging from “the boss’s office” to “in my car driving to meet a customer.”


While that last finding might raise some eyebrows — and prompt you to knock next time you open the supply closet — the overarching frequency of office romance should not come as a surprise, says Keary. “The workplace is the new neighborhood. People spend an enormous amount of time in the office, and if romance is going to happen, it will happen there,” she says.


Demographic trends feed the phenomenon, note Keary and others. With the average age of marriage increasing, young employees are more likely to be single. As women continue to join the workforce and rise through the ranks, they are more likely than ever to be working shoulder to shoulder with men. And in companies with a gay-friendly atmosphere, open same-sex dating should come as no surprise.


“Employees have become more confident about pursuing office romance and less careful to some degree about concealing it,” says Mark Oldman, co-founder and director of Vault.com. That perception is shared by 76% of employees surveyed in a 2004 joint Lawyers.com/Glamour magazine survey, who said workplace relationships were more common than they were 10 years earlier.


Oldman has his own list of reasons behind this rise in office romances: lengthening work hours, a strong economy that has put employees in the driver’s seat, and the influence of TV shows like NBC’s “Just Shoot Me” — about a magazine office with on-going romances — and films like “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” in which the main character dates her boss. “People are saying, ‘If they can do that, why can’t I?’” says Oldman.


Impact on Other Employees


“Dating on the job is like eating at your desk: Invariably, it’s going to get messy,” says Oldman of Vault.com. “Workplace romances can seem terrific up front, especially to young singles, but if they explode — and they usually do — that shrapnel can land in the workplace and be very distracting.”


Distracting not just for the two people involved, but for the people around them as well, according to Wharton management professor Jennifer Mueller. Mueller, who studies interpersonal relationships and team dynamics at work, says members of a workplace team often form cliques, and a romantic relationship is, in effect, a clique of two people, which has the potential to lock up valuable team resources in the exclusive relationship.


“Anytime people hoard resources — or are seen to be hoarding resources — that decreases the team’s ability to be effective and makes people angry,” says Mueller. If, on the other hand, the couple remains “well integrated,” and are not perceived as being exclusivist, the relationship may not be a problem.


To promote the integration of the couple, says Mueller, the team leader can assign the pair to separate tasks within the team. “That will also help if they break up, because they will have other ties to sustain them. Like anything that happens in a team, [the situation] needs to be managed.”


The potential impact on co-workers may explain why employees generally support the idea of management intervening in relationships perceived to be in violation of company policy: More than half of those surveyed by SHRM/CareerJournal.com said such couples should receive a formal reprimand from management (compared to only 36% of human resource professionals who favored this idea).


For some employees, however, knowing that co-workers are romantically involved can be upsetting in and of itself. That’s because employees generally fall on either side of a spectrum — those who favor work-life integration and those who prefer segmentation, or separation, of those two spheres, says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “People who date at work are integrating more. They are lowering the boundary between the work and non-work aspects of their lives.”


In her research about how employees interact with company work-life policies, Rothbard found that segmentors had lower satisfaction and commitment to their job if their company offered integrationist policies, like on-site day care. “So those who prefer to segment, even if they don’t engage in office romances themselves, may be bothered by [seeing it go] on around them,” she says. “Office romance can affect other people pretty profoundly.” 


No Official Policy


Dating at the office — and dating openly — is more common among younger generations, according to a January 2007 survey by Spherion, a Fort Lauderdale. Fla.-based recruiting and staffing agency. Among the 30 to 39-year-old age group, 47% said they had had an office romance, while among 50 to 64-year-olds, only 31% had, even though they had presumably been in the workplace longer. The youngest workers (ages 18 to 24) were the most likely to make their relationships public, according to the Spherion data.


Given this trend towards romantic mingling, it might come as a surprise that more than 70% of human resource professionals said their company had no official verbal or written policy on workplace romance, according to the SHRM/CareerJournal.com study. Policies that did exist were all over the map: Approximately 20% permitted workplace relationships, while 31% did not. The most common policy was to permit but discourage on-the-job romance (48%).


The point that both employees and human resource professionals surveyed in the various studies agree on is that a romantic relationship between a boss and a subordinate is an obvious no-no. Yet nearly 20% of employees in the Vault.com survey admitted to having dated a superior. The 2005 ousting of Harry Stonecipher, the former CEO of Boeing who was having an extramarital affair with a female vice president in the company, is a case in point. Hired to raise ethical standards at the company following several scandals, Stonecipher himself admitted he had faltered: “We set — hell, I set — a higher standard here,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I violated my own standards.”


For the minority of companies that do have office romance policies, fear of sexual harassment claims is the most common motivating factor, according to the SHRM/CareerJournal.com study. A new trend in this area is for companies to ask employees who report their relationships to sign a document stating that the entanglement is consensual. This human resources strategy is comically depicted in a recent episode of “The Office,” when Jan asks her lover and subordinate, Michael, to sign a contract absolving the company of any liability in the event that their relationship fails and negatively impacts his work.


David Gebler, president of Working Values, a Boston-based business ethics and training firm, says the biggest red flag that office relationships raise is the possibility of conflict of interest. “It may sound cold, but if a relationship is public, it should be vetted by the company to avoid ethical breaches,” states Gebler.


Employees have all sorts of reasons to keep a relationship secret, whether because they fear looking unprofessional, want to avoid gossip or simply prefer to keep it private. But maintaining the secrecy makes employees more vulnerable to ethical failures, Gebler adds. “Everyone thinks they can safely manage it themselves, that they will use good judgment. But it’s hard to have good judgment when you’re emotionally connected. A good ethics policy is: Don’t sweat it, talk about it.”


Interestingly, Stonecipher’s forced resignation “had to do with the violation of the company’s code of conduct, not the policy with regards to relationships,” says John Dern, a spokesman for Boeing. Stonecipher’s love interest did not report to him directly, but he did, as the Wall Street Journal reported, send her explicit emails through the company’s network. Perhaps the message is if Stonecipher had handled the affair differently — going public with the relationship and writing emails only from his private computer — he might still be CEO.


Managing as Best You Can


Given the difficulties and delicacies of the topic, it’s not surprising that the majority of companies don’t have a formal policy or management training on office romance, says Keary of SHRM. “Companies don’t want to spend time legislating what can’t be legislated. Why have a policy that nobody is going to follow?” she asks, noting that there is “not a lot of angst” about the issue among human resource professionals.


Consider this sampling of responses on the topic: When asked to comment on workplace romance policy, a spokesperson for MITRE, a non-profit government technology contractor, said no one at the company had anything to say, “It’s not a topic on the forefront of people’s minds,” he noted. A media representative at the New York offices of Naked Communications, a London-based advertising firm, said the company would not comment “due to the sensitivity of the topic.” A Booz Allen representative wrote in an email that the global consulting firm has no policy on office romance, other than the general policy that “the firm will respect the right of employees to conduct their private lives as they choose, while expecting public conduct to reflect favorably upon the reputation of the firm.”


This range of responses mirrors the mixed messages many employees apparently receive. In the Vault.com 2007 survey, 41% of employees surveyed said they didn’t know whether or not their office had a policy on the issue.


Gebler, of Working Values, recommends a more defined, proactive approach. “Don’t lump it into some general language regarding conflicts of interest,” he says, noting that his company, though small (85 employees), has a specific policy requiring employees to disclose relationships to avoid conflicts of interest. “We say we respect the right to employees’ privacy, but if employees have relationships, then there needs to be full disclosure.”


But how to get employees to go public with private feelings? Gebler says that depends on the atmosphere managers create. “If you have a healthy, respectful culture, these tend to be non-issues. It’s when corporate cultures are repressive that this becomes a bigger issue, either because people don’t feel comfortable [disclosing their relationships] for fear of retaliation or humiliation, or because the company doesn’t accept that people” are human.


Having a specific policy also gives supervisors more leeway to intervene if a relationship becomes problematic, according to John Heins, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Spherion. “The safe spot is to focus on performance, attendance or conduct. Companies that don’t have a policy in place are short-sighted, because they can only focus on performance or attendance,” while conduct is about adhering to company policy.


Whatever policy is in place, says Oldman of Vault.com, company leaders must be clear about communicating it. “You can’t just write it on a corporate scroll somewhere and expect to have everyone take it seriously,” he says. “A paragraph in some employee manual is not enough to override primal human impulses.”

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