Birds do it. Bees do it. And, yes, co-workers do it, too. In fact, it’s practically inevitable that, sooner or later, two of your employees will get together and start a relationship.
In a recent CareerBuilder.com survey, 39 percent of respondents said they’d dated a co-worker at least once during their careers, and 17 percent reported dating a co-worker at least twice. Thirty percent of those who’d dated a co-worker married them.
Most of the entanglements occurred between two peers, but 29 percent of workers who’d dated a colleague said it was someone who outranked them in the company’s hierarchy, and 16 percent admitted to dating their boss. Women (38 percent) were more likely than men (21 percent) to date a higher-ranking colleague.
How did these love connections happen? According to the survey, social settings outside of the office were the most common, followed by running into each other outside of work, attending happy hours, spending late nights at the office, and going to lunch.
Love has always had its consequences, and there are more than you might realize when it strikes in an office setting. So, what do you do if Cupid strikes two of your employees? Here’s what a few experts advise.
Don’t Ignore the Situation
Ignorance is not bliss. Pretending that you don’t know what’s going on is a decision you’re likely to regret if things go badly between the co-workers. There are consequences for the company, particularly if the relationship is between a manager and a subordinate.
“By turning a blind eye, the owner not only could be unaware of potential sexual harassment and a resulting lawsuit, but could be accused of willful ignorance, thus exacerbating the harm to the subordinate and the resulting injury award,” warns David Scher, principal attorney for the Employment Law Group.
There is an inherent conflict between coherent office management and sexual relations. Sex is generally considered a private topic, and romance has its own potential for drama, Scher says.
“Co-workers must work together effectively, and it takes a high level of maturity to manage both a sexual/romantic and a work relationship simultaneously. The potential for bias, confusion, complex relationship dynamics, and in-fighting increases where these kinds of dual-role relationships exist,” he adds.
Worse still, when a supervisor is in a relationship with a subordinate, the line between romance and sexual harassment becomes increasingly thin. In such an event, says Scher, the company is open to lawsuits, bad press, and unpleasant turbulence that can seriously disrupt operations.
In addition, office romances can lead to increased gossip, decreased morale (especially if others perceive that the subordinate is receiving favorable treatment), and a general distraction from (or even an aversion to) simply getting the job done, he adds.
Have a Chat With the Couple
Joseph Grenny, workplace expert and co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, says that small-business owners can candidly and respectfully talk to their employees about how their behavior is impacting the workplace. He offers a few tips for having a private, productive talk. (If the couple has made their relationship public then you can talk to them about the issue together as a couple, if the couple is obviously interested in each other, but has not made their relationship public, talk to them separately.)
“Start the conversation by sharing your good intentions. The last thing you want to do is make the office lovebirds feel like you are attacking or blaming them. Create safety by letting them know you have their best interest in mind,” Grenny says.
Be careful with your language, he advises. Describe the situation using tentative terms and what you think the couple is doing, not what you’ve concluded. Focus on the one issue you care about most. Don’t air a list of gripes; address one issue at a time. End by expressing your concern and thanks, Grenny says.
Put Your Policy in Writing
A written policy won’t stop romance in the workplace, but it’s often helpful to have one.
“Strict ‘no-fraternization’ polices don’t necessarily keep employees from dating; instead, they often drive this behavior underground. Each company will want to think about what would best fit their culture and business climate,” notes Amy Salvaggio, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven.
However, Scher says a written policy can help to protect the business. The policy should expressly outline acceptable behavior in the workplace and how the owner will handle co-worker relationships (preferably requiring any manager to disclose immediately any relationship with a subordinate and also stating that the business may investigate any relationships to determine the impact, if any, on workplace operations).
The owner must meet with the parties to discuss the impact on the workplace and to ensure compliance with sexual harassment policies and laws. “Clearly document the resulting agreement and monitor it,” Scher advises.
Do a Reality Check
“It’s not that two people who meet in an office and fall in love should be prohibited from having a relationship. Rather, the company should have clear policies for how to handle romantic relationships in the workplace and a pathway for communication and resolution of resulting issues and concerns,” Scher says. “Written policies should prohibit sexual harassment and encourage and promote workplace operations and morale.”
Although a soured romance can turn into a sexual harassment case, it’s more likely that you’ll lose a valued employee, Salvaggio says. “[Sexual harassment] happens far less than people think. What’s more likely is that if the relationship goes south, one partner may leave the company. This may have financial costs if that person was a good performer.”
Quite frankly, she asserts, “It may be misguided to try and enforce a ‘no dating’ policy, as these can be seen as intrusive to many employees, depending on the organizational and industry culture.”
There are some upsides to office romances, too. According to Salvaggio, “Research suggests that married co-workers are a source of social support to each other. They can act as a buffer for stress. It can really help that your partner understands your work and organizational situation — he or she shares your worldview and perspective.”