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Romance in the Office Is Common Occurrence

When employees become romantically involved, there can be potential drawbacks
When Valentine’s Day rolls around each year, romance is in the air.
However, romance can be ever present within the workplace and may be no further away than the next desk. A 2006 study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that as many as 40 percent of workers had had an office romance.
And while to some, workplace romances may seem harmless, they, in fact, can lead to serious problems, says Charles A. Pierce, an associate professor of management in the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at the University of Memphis, whose research interests include workplace romance and sexual harassment.
The most obvious downside to workplace relationships is that they can lead to sexual harassment claims, Pierce says, adding there have been more than 50 federal and state workplace romance-sexual harassment legal cases since 1980. And that’s not mentioning the far greater number of claims that have been handled internally without ever going to court.
The development of interpersonal relationships at work is inevitable. After all, many men and women spend most of their weekday hours together. And, the office remains one of the best places where employees can find a potential mate who shares similar life goals and attitudes.
Vault.com, an on-line job site, conducted a study that found that 40 percent of the respondents said they met their future spouse at or through work.
However, some relationships can spell disaster for a workplace. Those include extramarital affairs and a romance between a boss and subordinate. They can disrupt the office, harm teamwork and lower morale. To many co-workers, an affair violates their ethical values and they may feel morally compromised if asked to cover for adulterous colleagues.
Charges of favoritism, including overlooking shoddy work or a promotion, can result if a supervisor is carrying on a relationship with someone who works directly for him or her.
Amy Nicole Salvaggio, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, has conducted a study of nearly 200 full-time workers in a variety of workplaces and preliminary findings indicate that most respondents do not mind seeing a romance develop between two unmarried colleagues.
However, they did object to a relationships where one or both are married and between a supervisor and a subordinate.
Her survey results, which will be presented at the American Psychological Association conference this summer, indicated that, on the whole, employees see workplace romances producing more risks than benefits. Many respondents felt that careers can be derailed, work performance declines and a loss of respect and credibility are possible outcomes of a workplace tryst.
Also, co-workers are affected. Pierce says that workplace romances can create low office morale and co-workers become uncomfortable observing public displays of affection.
This is especially true when the relationship goes bad. Sometimes bitterness will result leading the couple to feud and force co-workers to take sides. In some cases, the breakup could lead to sexual harassment charges. That is especially true where a supervisor and subordinate are involved.
However, there can be some positives. “It’s possible that workplace romance participants are happier with their jobs, more motivated and, hence, perform better,” says Pierce.
In one of his studies, Pierce investigated factors that predict workplace romances, including employees’ attitudes toward romance and sexual intimacy at work and their levels of perceived job autonomy.
“It’s a well established finding that attitudes toward a particular behavior can predict that behavior,” Pierce said. He used a multi-item scale to measure employees’ attitudes toward workplace romances and found that people with favorable attitudes toward workplace romances are more likely to engage in them.
He also found that having a job where an employee has the ability to move freely around the workplace and socialize can be predictive of a relationship. The more a person interacts with other employees, the more apt he or she is to meet someone that can lead to a romantic involvement.
The office culture can also play a role in workplace romances, notes Salvaggio. “They are more likely to occur if the environment is sexualized by flirting, off-color joking and provocative dressing.”
Ultimately, it becomes a management responsibility. Some companies have policies forbidding office relationships and hiring married couples. However, many companies, for legal reasons, shy away from such strict rules.
Instead they institute fraternization policies, which focus on conflict of interest issues, unlike sexual harassment policies, which deal with EEOC definitions of illegal behavior. These policies make it clear that supervisors cannot date subordinates.
Some employers have developed consensual office relationship policies, says Pierce. While allowing consensual romances, the policies stipulate boundaries and provide processes for co-workers to complain or express concerns.
It is important to establish a professional atmosphere where company goals can be accomplished and that means creating a working environment where people are productive and feel comfortable with each other. If workplace romances develop, so be it, but employees should know the boundaries and possible consequences for crossing them.
For more information, contact Dr. Chuck Pierce at 901-678-3159 or email at capierce@memphis.edu. Dr. Amy Nicole Salvaggio can be reached at 918-631-2267. Her email is amy-salvaggio@utulsa.edu.
The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of 6,300 industrial-organizational psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning people in the workplace. For more information about SIOP, including Media Resources, which lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit www.siop.org.