Office romance? First, sign a contract.
Love-struck workers may be inevitable, but lawsuits from jilted lovers are not – if employees consent to a 'love contract.'
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Some companies simply include a conflict-of-interest policy in the employment handbook. It typically provides that supervisors cannot be involved in romantic relationships with subordinates, says Brian LaFratta, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Chicago. "If there is such a relationship, the company doesn't want to say, 'You have to break up.' One of the parties has to transfer to a different department or branch."Skip to next paragraph
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He calls the policy problematic. "It disrupts the workforce and requires companies to replace an employee anytime a relationship develops," he says. "Sometimes the only solution is for one to resign. It's a good idea, but in practice it may cause morale problems and cause people to try harder to hide their relationships."
Even without a contract, some companies find ways to protect employees and themselves. Zachary Hummel, a partner with Bryan Cave law firm in New York, tells about a group of restaurants that employed many young people. Although owners disapproved of managers dating waitresses, they didn't forbid it. They said, "If you date the help, you have to tell us. If you don't tell us, you will be terminated." During a romance, they moved the manager to another local restaurant. "If you have true affection, there's a certain sacrifice you'll make to continue the relationship," Mr. Hummel says.
Whatever the arrangement, Francie Dalton, a workplace behavioral expert in Columbia, Md., believes it is "not smart" to allow romantic relationships at work. "There are always issues of trust, confidentiality, and favoritism with office romance. The people who are involved always think they can hide their romance. It's naive."
She makes a possible exception for lower-level employees, when neither party supervises anyone, and when their positions do not make them privy to anything confidential. "But it's not OK to make office romance OK for one hierarchical level and not OK for another." At every level, she warns, "You're going to lose productivity."
Still, when Olen and co-author Stephanie Losee researched their book, they found employers who either did not mind or actively encouraged relationships. "Southwest Airlines is famous for encouraging and promoting them," Olen says. "They say, 'We consider ourselves a family.' "
Office romances may actually boost productivity
She adds that some evidence shows that productivity actually goes up when love is in bloom. "When you have a best friend in the office, you tend to feel better about coming to work. Anything that increases your emotional commitment to work is generally not a bad thing."
Turner of Kaye/Bassman International Corp., agrees. "Our retention is higher because of it," he says.
For those involved in workplace liaisons, rules of decorum apply. Just because you met your partner at work doesn't mean you should conduct your romance at the office, Olen says. "Don't hang around their cubicle. Don't have coffee with them every day. Don't involve them in your workplace imbroglios. Most important, stay away from e-mail and instant messages. If you're doing it on the company phone and e-mail, they're not private."
Taking a long-range view, Ms. Edwards says, "Office romance in the workplace is never going to go away. Employers cannot realistically come up with policies that prohibit romance. It's not practical, and it runs contrary to human nature."