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Cupid In The Cubicle - Workplace Romance


Dear Nan:
I’ve just graduated from college and have a brand new job. Now I would like a brand new romance! However, I am confused about what is and what is not appropriate with regard to launching a workplace romance in today’s corporate world. I know management cannot put restrictions on my personal life but I’m also mature enough to know I don’t want to commit a career limiting move right out of the chute. What suggestions do you have for the best way to find and conduct a romance and still keep my job?

I believe employees new to the work world (and even seasoned ones) are confused today about the wisdom of pursuing a workplace romance. They have heard the full range of positive stories about romances that have blossomed into great marriages along with great careers to horror tales of those that have crashed in total personal (and often litigious) disaster in both arenas. In actuality, the truth about workplace romance lies somewhere in the messy middle ground.

Companies Can’t Restrict Romance

Most of us would agree that employees’ personal lives should be just that—kept personal. The company is not Big Brother. Furthermore, the company’s honchos don’t have the time or the desire to meddle in or monitor the personal romantic life of each employee.

Although a company cannot control matters of the heart, it does have a legitimate interest in the bottom line. Office romances have the potential to expose the company to a damaging lawsuit and also to affect employees’ job performance under certain circumstances. Familiarize yourself with the types of romances that can sneak over the line into shaky legal territory.

The biggest hazard for a company is the potential financial risk of litigation. Most often, these cases involve workplace romance between employees reporting to each other. If the relationship with a manager ends, the subordinate could at some point claim, under US federal guidelines of sexual harassment, that her supervisor coerced her into the relationship.

If you’re having a relationship with your boss, how does a subordinate call off a romance and break his/her boss’ heart? Beyond the emotional challenge of such a prospect, the supervisor is in control of the subordinate’s reviews, salary increases and promotions.

Someone not involved in the romance could make a claim against the company, alleging that the involved employee was receiving preferential treatment, such as better bonuses or an easier workload. Even though these may be unfounded, perceived preferential treatment claims, the company is still vulnerable.

Cautions For The Employee

Probably the biggest challenge for those involved in office romances is how to keep their romance out of the office. Here are a few guidelines for workplace wooing:

  1. Be realistic. Ask yourself this important question: If I get involved with this individual and the relationship goes south, can I still go to work each day and see him or her?
  2. Don’t ever date because you are afraid to say “no”; and, don’t ever date because you want to get promoted. Both are time bombs for potential harassment lawsuits.
  3. Don’t look up— and don’t look down. Don’t even consider a romance with someone to whom you directly report, or someone who reports to you (even if layers exist between you). I once asked the Human Resources Director of a major Midwestern company about their written “reporting to” policy. I asked him, “What do you do, then, if a supervisor becomes involved with a subordinate?” He replied: “We don’t fire anyone, but we split up their working relationship. And from that time on, neither is promoted again.” Strong words.
  4. Keep in mind at ALL times that you must keep your professional and personal lives completely separate.
  5. Keep the relationship private until you are ready to publicly announce you are a couple.
  6. Stay professional at all times. Let professional manners and courtesy guide your actions and speech in all situations and don’t engage in public displays of affection.
  7. Be sensitive to your co-workers. Don’t discuss your relationship with them. Believe it or not, co-workers are not particularly enthralled when they find themselves in the middle of your relationship drama.
  8. Limit the number of people with whom you share confidential information. This will prevent the gossip that is certain to follow any dramatic disclosures.
  9. Never go behind closed doors (your office, his/her office, conference room) for extended periods of time alone or leave work together during office hours.
  10. Never carry on romantic discussions or electronic communications, flirt, and display physical or sexual behavior on the job. This behavior will always be inappropriate— whether you both consent or not— since it will always affect your co-workers and has potential to be perceived as a harassment situation for them.
  11. Don’t ever bring your domestic arguments or involved discussions to the job.
  12. Most important of all (and sometimes most difficult) get your work done. Oftentimes, the quality of work can suffer because having your significant other so close is distracting. And, of course, the real biggie:
  13. If the relationship ends, don’t use company grounds, other co-workers, company equipment or company time as a forum to express any hurt, anger or revenge. Just as you should not use work time to engage in romantic activities, neither should you use it to try to win back your ex or engage in retribution.

Cupid Cops And Love Contracts

Some Fortune 500 companies have even flirted with appointing “Cupid cops” to monitor office romances and nip them in the bud before they bloom into a potentially explosive lawsuit. The latter is accomplished by changing the “reporting to” relationship of a couple, and/or encouraging them to make this change themselves. In the “believe it or not” category, I have heard of a few firms going so far as to require you to sign documents (known as a “Dating Waiver” or “Love Contract”) acknowledging that your relationship with a coworker is consensual and that either party can break things off at any time without fear of reprisal. My advice? Run, don’t walk, away from such a “love contract.” While these contracts theoretically protect the company from legal action, an employee who signs one could always say she/he was seduced, induced or otherwise under duress at the time— likely rendering the document invalid anyhow.

These skittish efforts, however, ultimately reflect the concern and confusion that companies are having regarding workplace romance. In the long run, your company has no right (legal or otherwise) to get involved in your workplace romance if it is not a “reporting romantic relationship.” If it is a Triple R, however, the company can intercede in the interest of preventing a potential harassment lawsuit. The company may also need to take steps to prevent a “sexually charged” situation, a new twist on the “hostile environment.”

Per example, the California Supreme Court (after a six year battle) recently issued an eagerly-anticipated decision pertaining to sexual harassment claims brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The justices held that widespread sexual favoritism in the workplace creates a hostile worker environment that demeans other employees.

Edna Miller and Frances Mackey (latter now deceased) were employed by the California Department of Corrections. They claimed that while employed at CDC, the prison warden, Lewis Kuykendall, was having affairs with at least three subordinates and that these women were receiving preferential treatment. In l999, Miller and Mackey filed a lawsuit against CDC alleging sex discrimination and illegal retaliation, claiming they were “forced to work in a hostile work environment where women got ahead and were promoted if they performed sexual favors for employees of CDC.”

Their lawsuit got stalled in the lower courts for some time because everyone involved in the affairs said they were consensual. And, Miller never argued that the warden directly harassed her. However, the courts eventually ruled in Miller’s favor by stating that a sexually charged atmosphere, if sufficiently widespread, created a “hostile work environment” and qualified as a type of sexual harassment. That’s when sexual tensions are so intolerable at work that they would affect any normal person’s ability to do a job.

This lawsuit cranked up the accountability for all workplace romances a notch because this was about consensual sexual relationships in the workplace that were found to affect other employees who were not in any way coerced to have sex!

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars