How to Manage the Inevitable Office Romance
JULY 14, 2021
Take note, singles: Your soulmate might be waiting by the watercooler.
According to a recent survey, workplace relationships are more common, and often more serious, than you might think. CareerBuilder found that nearly 40% of US workers have dated a co-worker and about one third of that group married their office paramour. As the lines between work and life continue to blur, the stigma against office romance seems to be fading too.
How are HR departments—and enamored employees—managing the inevitable office romance differently in our constantly connected world?
The New Rules of Workplace Engagement
"Many companies do have policies in place," says Mary Lorenz, Corporate Communications Manager at CareerBuilder, "Often companies will have employees sign some sort of office romance 'contract' to protect the company against sexual harassment claims or other legal action should the relationship go south."
But generally, says Lorenz, companies have become much more accepting of office relationships, pointing to the fact that only about one-third of respondents to CareerBuilder's survey felt a need to keep their relationship secret. This growing tolerance comes with an important caveat: "Companies expect workers to compartmentalize their work and personal lives," Lorenz says.
Maintaining that divide can be a challenge as the boundaries between work and life fade. Laura Spaventa, a PR professional, started dating a co-worker, Jake, shortly after taking a job at a Washington, D.C. firm. While there were several other couples openly dating in the office, they kept their relationship under wraps for about nine months because she wanted to protect her professional reputation. One of the most frustrating parts of dating in secret, says Spaventa, was not being able to share photos of Jake with friends and family on social media: "Social is how you keep tabs on people."
For Employees, Focus on Keeping It Professional
Ultimately, social media is how Jake's boss found out about the relationship and, although by that time Spaventa had left D.C. for a job in San Francisco, the disclosure caused complications for Jake, as managers were unsure how long he would stay at the firm.
Now, Spaventa is engaged to Jake and they are again working at the same office. This time, their relationship has been above board from the beginning, which she says made for a bit of an awkward start. "A lot of people thought I got the job just because of him," she shares. "But once I established myself, people saw my value."
Spaventa says couples can earn the trust of management and their colleagues with some common-sense professionalism. "I've worked in environments where there were relationships and it has been distracting," she says. "But if you are professional and do your job, I don't see what the problem is."
For HR, Focus on Keeping Culture Front and Center
For HR managers who are considering office policies for workplace romance, it's important to keep culture in mind, says Debra Genender, HR manager at Berry Dunn, a Portland, Maine-based accounting and consulting firm.
"Rules that are too strict—considering how other policies in the company are written—may seem out of place and discriminatory. Any newly enforced policy should be reasonable and culturally appropriate, with similar guidelines as to how employees are expected to conduct themselves in all other areas."
Genender adds that forbidding workplace romance might cause more problems than HR managers had to begin with. (Forcing people to keep their trysts under wraps could ultimately distract them from their work, for example). The key is to be reasonable—after all, every relationship is different.
Genender says one-off conversations are often more effective than detailed, strict policies. If there is a problem with one couple displaying PDAs in the office, she suggests HR schedule a disciplinary chat with the pair, rather than changing an entire policy.
Her logic aligns with Spaventa's point of view: "As long as employees conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times, workplace relationships do not have to be a problem."
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