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.

Reader Comments

David

Where do hardworking, single individuals spend most of their time? And, where do you have the opportunity to develop new friends? At work, of course. As long as the relationship at work is kept appropriate and does not interfere with the company's real objectives and business-like atmosphere, I see nothing wrong with relationships at work. That is how I met my wife of 31 years.

RC

I think that of the two arguments presented, the pro argument deeming office romances OK is far more compelling than the con argument.

Favoritism, suspicion, and animosity are already a part of the office environment. The only appropriate limitation should be on supervisors engaged in relationships with those they directly supervise.

wilbert

I go along with David's view on whether the office romance should be avoided. Since we work under ever-increasing pressure, we are inclined to communicate with our colleagues in some sense to release our stress and mitigate depression. And over time, we may meet someone who we can relate to; then something goes out of control emotionally. If we can handle such things properly and do our best not to exert influence on others, office romance is all right.

anuj

Romance at work can lead to distraction during work hours, when your boyfriend/girlfriend is sitting next to you. It also creates distractions for co-workers who may indulge in gossip. It can lead to uncomfortable situations when things do not work out between people. It becomes awkward to face one's ex every day in the office. This may even result in switching jobs. Personally, I had been involved with my roommate for a while and when things didn't work out between us, it became uncomfortable for us to live together, and my roommate decided to move out.

I agree that a considerable amount of one's life is spent at his/her workplace, and it presents ample opportunity to meet and connect with fellow co-workers. But at the same time, there is no limit on various other avenues outside of the workplace that present opportunities for people to meet their someone special.

diana

I agree with David's view on dealing with the relationship between work and romance. In fact, office romance has a positive role sometimes. For example, when your mood is good, you can improve work-efficiency.

dima

If you're alone, probably the best way to find your future wife/husband is to work with him/her, because you can see the real nature of the person.

kate

I agree. Work is definitely the good way to meet someone--and then figure out how to work things out.

Dana Wawanda

It's OK if we're singles, but when our relationship is getting deeper and serious, we must decide whether to work in the same office with our spouse.

Napoleon

Love is a natural thing and can't be stopped, but it can be controlled. I suppose employers should allow workers to have romantic relationship with one another.

Mathew DaiLee

Where there is true love between two people in the same company, employers should let workers have the romance.

Terrie

Office romances are fraught with risks, especially in the event that things turn sour. But if people behave with common sense and professionalism, things can work out--I met my husband of 18 years at work, and we continued to work together for several years without it causing any problems.

Terrie

One further thought: I understand the potential legal issues that arise when a supervisor and subordinate have a relationship, and companies have a right to protect themselves. But the problems that can arise from peer-to-peer relationships should be handled just like any other performance issue. As the manager of a group of nine employees, I can vouch for the fact that there are lots of reasons people show up late, gossip, get distracted, and engage in petty histrionics that have nothing to do with romance.

Mike

I think this is fine as long as employees are not committed to other partners who are also part of a company "family." I have been friends with two of my coworkers as well as their spouses, and when they started having their affairs on company time while completely overlooking their responsibilities, my whole world came to an end. I am the one who flagged what they were doing.

My next step is to get them fired for having sex in a warehouse and stairway of the office on a daily basis. I am not against people having office affairs, but people should be open, honest, and forthright with management and other coworkers so that it doesn't become a festering problem.

d0k0night

Nothing wrong with office romance if it's involving two people who are from different departments.

Whether things go well or not, chances are good that you won't see each other day in and out.

But if you two see each other every day hour upon hour, it's risky. In any event there has to be a mutual understanding from the get-go between both parties to:

1) Keep it a secret--no leaks
2) Should things go sour, no fallout

Elana

I have worked in the same office (and carpooled) with my husband for nearly 12 years. We work for different supervisors at a very small (25 people) government office. Despite a separation of nearly eight months and a near-divorce, no one even knew we were separated for the first four months.

We are individuals, and we act that way at work. We are here to do a job. Although we see each other often during the day and eat lunch together, we rarely show physical affection at work--it is not the place.

We met through working at different offices, same company. I think relationships last longer when you have more-important things in common (careers). Yes, it can be very messy if things go wrong. It also can be messy if you have another person or supervisor you don't get along with. Life is a gamble.

Bob

Follow the policies of the company you work for, or don't work for that company. Keep it simple, stupid.

Lisa

I don't think that work and relationships should happen in the work place. You are hearing from someone with experience on this. I was seeing my co-worker for a couple of months. Everything was great. Then when his son starting playing ball he met another woman. I didn't exist anymore. Now I have to look at him every day. I find myself crying several times a day. Luckily I have my own office and no one can see me. No one ever knew we were seeing each other. We only went out after work. We never let anyone know in the office. Now my heart is broken and I have to see him everyday. I don't suggest this to anyone. Beleive me,I found out the hard way.

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