File Office Romances Under ‘OK’
Employers should allow workers to have romantic relationships with one another. They are inevitable and for the most part harmless. Pro or con?
Pro: Don’t Fight Human Nature
The legal mess Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) faced last winter on the heels of dismissing an executive who allegedly had an affair with a subordinate serves as a warning to other employers: Butt out of office relationships.
When the retailer fired Julie Roehm, marketing senior vice-president, for—among other things—violating its “fraternization” policy, she sued. Wal-Mart launched a countersuit, which prompted Roehm to hit back hard with new serious accusations.
So much agitation for so little purpose.
Of course, in a situation where, say, one spouse directly reports to the other spouse, conflict of interest poses a marked danger. But simply working for the same company shouldn’t prevent co-workers from dating and having long-term romantic relationships. What better place to meet someone than at the job? Chitchat in a bar or on the Web reveals little about a person’s character. But how he or she acts at work—in responsible situations, under pressure—does.
That’s why employers such as Wal-Mart are in the minority. According to The Wall Street Journal and a 2005 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 18% of businesses have guidelines concerning romantic relationships between employees. Nearly all of the existing policies focus on the relationship between a superior and a subordinate—and not, for example, on a salesperson and a mailroom worker.
These anti-romance rules limit a company’s flexibility if it decides, as is often the case, that one or both of the participants in the affair are too valuable to lose. Even if it discovers a relationship that hurts no one, the employer must enforce its policy or open itself up to claims of discrimination when one romance is censured but another is allowed to exist with impunity. What’s more, "bans aren’t effective," says Freada Klein, a San Francisco researcher and consultant on sexual harassment. "They just drive the relationships underground."
Indeed, policy or no, it is impossible to prevent office romance. In a recent survey by career Web site Vault.com, 58% of respondents reported dating a co-worker. One in five admitted to a relationship with a boss, and 15% said they have had a relationship with someone they supervised.
And the companies themselves unwittingly foster office romance these days by blurring the line between work and home with perks such as game rooms and on-site gyms, says Nancy Rothbard, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
There’s no turning back. Best to worry about the bottom line and let office romances sort themselves out.
Con: Love Leads to Lawsuits
If the frequency of workplace affairs is increasing, the legal risk they present remains unchanged. Workers who make romantic advances to co-workers are often targeted with sexual-harassment claims, whether deserved or not.
What about an employee let go after an affair with a superior? Even if the firing occurred for valid, job-related reasons, the employee may still feel the superior is penalizing him or her for ending the affair. That means grounds for a lawsuit claiming retaliation.
Proponents of written policies say clear guidelines can help prevent such situations—as well as scenarios in which a co-worker in an office romance is viewed as getting special treatment.
Consider Jeff (who asked that his last name not be used), an employee of an information technology business in the Midwest. His company has no policy forbidding workplace relationships. Two years ago, one of the other two members of his sales team became romantically involved with a vice-president to whom she indirectly reported. She started slacking off on her job, forcing Jeff and the other teammate to take on her responsibilities.
Meanwhile, at the regional sales meeting, she and her romantic liaison held hands and even kissed in public. Says Jeff: "It was assumed she was being protected by a vice-president or she would have been fired long ago."
The danger of office romances is substantiated by the reactions of the courts. Judges increasingly favor employers in cases where they show the romance had some disruptive impact in the workplace, says Nancy Bornn, a Manhattan Beach (Calif.) employment lawyer. "The constitutional right to date and marry are not unconditional rights in the workplace," she says.
Consider the story of Jess McCavitt, an officer at an insurance company. In a case decided in New York federal court in 2001, McCavitt sued his employer after he was fired for having an office romance. McCavitt contended that the affair had no impact on the workplace and that the company didn’t have a policy against such relationships. He cited state labor law that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s activities outside of work—what the law calls "recreational activity." Nonetheless, the court sided with his employer.
For all employees, emotional attachment in the workplace at best spawns awkward situations, and at worst, means favoritism, suspicion, animosity, and litigation. Companies are wise to preempt trouble by placing limits on such relationships.—J.H. and R.B.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.