Love and Work: How to Maintain an Appropriate Workplace Relationship

For 27 years it has been Susan Heathfield’s duty to diagnose and help treat problems among co-workers. Since 1987, Heathfield has managed her own consulting firm and has consulted with more than 100 clients and facilitated more than 2,000 training and planning sessions. As a former HR director, training manager, organization development consultant and a community college extension head, Heathfield has experienced every facet of human resources issues. Now she is using her expertise to advise others. With more than 150 online and print publications to her credit and as a regular guest on talk radio shows across the nation, Heathfield’s advice is highly sought after. As About.com’s human resources expert, Heathfield is committed to helping companies create forward-thinking workplaces.

Diversity Executive recently spoke with Heathfield, and excerpts from the interview appear below.

What are the biggest do’s and don’ts of engaging in an office romance?

Do’s and don’ts definitely exist about office romances.

First and foremost, know your organization’s written and unwritten policies about romantic, sexual, extramarital or dating relationships. Some organizations have fraternization or dating policies that prohibit certain relationships such as a boss dating a reporting employee. Some forbid dating co-workers at all.

Carry out your relationship discreetly until you are seriously dating. Then, have the appropriate conversations with each other and human resources.

Minimize the impact of your relationship on the workplace so that you continue as a valued employee. Cause no disruption in the workplace because of your relationship.

Organizations recognize that work is the perfect place to meet a romantic partner. Co-workers share a common interest — the company. They tend to have similar education levels, income levels and live within commuting distance, which makes dating easier.

Organizations worry, however, what will happen if the relationship ends. Will one partner charge the other with sexual harassment? Will co-workers be adversely affected by a growing — then ending — relationship? Will they lose a valued employee? They worry that the relationship will disrupt productivity and workplace harmony. These are legitimate concerns.

What steps should someone take when they begin to date a co-worker? Is it better to be upfront with HR about it or try and keep it a secret?

Your first step is to date discreetly until you know a serious relationship is forming. You don’t want to develop the reputation of a flirt or flake when 55 percent of human resources managers interviewed in a recent Society for Human Resources Management study say that marriage is the most likely outcome of an office romance.

Discuss, as a couple, the potential impact of your relationship on your work. Ask yourself questions such as: If you work in the same department, how will dating affect your ability to earn promotions and preferred projects? Will one employee have to leave a department or the company? Will your organization respond favorably to your relationship? Know your company, and make a plan before the organization requests one.

Then, go to HR, as may be required in your organization’s dating policy, to discuss whether dating has to have an impact on your job. It is much better that you approach them than that they are blindsided by the relationship.

Most dating policies forbid people dating when one has a role that has any impact on pay, promotions or working conditions of the second employee. So one person in the dating couple may need to look for a new job outside of the company, or in a larger organization, in a different department. If your organization is one of the approximately 7 percent that forbid dating co-workers, one of you needs to be prepared to leave the organization.

Keeping the relationship secret makes you untrustworthy and unprofessional and could result in both employees losing their jobs.

Limit the number of people at work with whom you share this confidential information. You don’t need to tell every co-worker, but feel free to share it with close friends and colleagues. Share it with couples with whom you may socialize outside of work. Be prepared for stares and comments when you show up together at your first company event.

How should a couple who works together behave in the workplace?

Couples who work together should behave exactly as they do with co-workers whom they are not dating. Professional behavior that includes no demonstrations of affection in the workplace and no adverse impact on performance is expected. I witnessed a couple who had broken up have a screaming match in the middle of a client workplace a couple of years ago. Both parties were suspended from work and their professional reputations suffered. Their judgment and maturity was questioned going forward.

Behave discreetly in the workplace. Keep public displays of affection, such as kissing or holding hands, off limits at work. Even when co-workers learn that you’re a couple, you still need to act as if you are professionals working in a professional work environment.

If your position and responsibilities require you to work together, attend the same meetings and so on, behave professionally at all times. You are encouraged to be yourself, maintain and speak your continuing opinions, exhibit the same skills and conduct yourself in the same manner as you did prior to the relationship. Several recent studies have shown that dating a co-worker has led to increased workplace engagement and productivity. Capitalize on this.

You have worked in HR for many years. Have the number of workplace relationships increased, decreased or stayed the same? CareerBuilder’s annual survey on office romance found nearly two in five (38 percent) U.S. workers have dated someone who worked for the same company. Is this similar to what you have seen? What do you think can be attributed to that trend?

Workplace relationships are increasing in my view. The youngest generation of employees, the millennials or Gen Y employees, expect to make friends with co-workers. Since they are capable of being online 24/7, they expect to make their friends at work. They are more relaxed about dating co-workers.

Whereas their baby boomer colleagues shied away from workplace romances, the younger employees expect them.

Workplaces have relaxed about office romance, too, during the past 20 to 30 years. When I worked at GM in the ’80s, a couple in a workplace romance would hide the relationship and work hard not to get caught. They knew the relationship would affect their careers and status.

In recent years, the Vault.com study has found that the concept of workplace romances is gradually becoming more acceptable among survey respondents.

What are some of the biggest ethical concerns when a boss dates an employee who reports to them?

The biggest ethical concern is that the boss will make decisions about pay, assignments, promotions and working conditions based on maintaining the relationship. This can adversely affect the opportunities that co-workers experience, and the dating partner may not be worthy of the special treatment.

The second is that co-workers who recognize a relationship is going on will experience jealousy, spend time gossiping, watch the actions of the dating pair, and experience a general lack of motivation and engagement as a result of the relationship. When a manager dates a reporting staff person, the disruption to productivity is guaranteed. Co-workers speculate endlessly about the relationship and anything that looks like special treatment.

Further, a recent decision by the California Supreme Court found that sexual harassment can exist for co-workers of the consenting couple. If co-workers of reporting staff members feel that they have been treated differently or less favorably by the boss, sexual harassment can exist.

When does a workplace relationship become inappropriate?

Workplace romances become inappropriate when they involve a boss and reporting staff person under any circumstances. They are inappropriate when they involve an employee who is married. The relationship triggers gossip, unhappiness, and has long-term consequences for the employees and their ability to do their jobs.

Picture, for example, a married man has a sexual relationship with a single co-worker from a different department. The result of the relationship? The man’s wife, when she learns about the relationship, refuses to attend any company events or pursue friendships with company employees. She refuses to allow her husband to travel to events he really should attend if the employee he was involved with romantically will attend. The man’s career is affected and the company has an ongoing problem when the woman fails to perform.

In summary, any relationship that affects the engagement, productivity or commitment of the romantic pair or their co-workers is inappropriate.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.