A little too much love in the office air (Toughest HR Question)

How to deal with a workplace couple who’s being overly affectionate
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/27/2013

Question: How do you deal with a couple who is overly affectionate in the workplace?

Answer: To a certain extent, the answer to that question depends on what you mean by “overly affectionate.”

It’s also highly dependent on the facts in question and the work relationship between the two employees (I’m assuming both parties are employees).

For example, are we talking about a quick kiss as both employees enter the building in the morning and head to their respective work stations, or are we talking about “bumping and grinding” and full-on French kissing?

The first would seem pretty innocuous in most situations, whereas the other would be entirely inappropriate in just about any work-related environment — including lunch breaks or social events connected with the workplace.

It’s also relevant to know how closely the employees work, where and how they choose to show their affection, whether or not there is any major power differential or reporting relationship involved and the corporate culture and demographic makeup of the organization.

While people’s “extracurricular activities” are generally no one else’s business, basic decency, manners and respect dictate it’s in poor taste to flaunt an extramarital affair in the workplace or share highly intimate details with colleagues.

But even if the relationship is above board and there’s no conflict of interest or perceived exploitation involved, showing excessive affection in a work environment is inappropriate for several reasons:

• Some people will not want to approach the couple, even for valid, business-related inquiries, for fear of intruding.

• Depending on the situation, it may give an appearance of favouritism by other colleagues.

• Excessive public affection brings behaviours into the public realm that really should be kept private.

• People from some cultures find excessive public displays of affection particularly off-putting (this needs to be remembered particularly in an international context).

• Some people may feel envious of the couple’s relationship status and feel they are flaunting their relationship in front of others who are single — or who don’t have such affectionate relationships with their own partners.

• Such behaviour just isn’t appropriate or professional at a work environment.

Dating in the workplace

It’s understandable many people have a personal code against dating someone at work. After all, dating a co-worker can be damaging to your career and what happens if the relationship sours?

Yet many other people (including my parents) actually met their spouses at work. After all, we spend so much of our waking lives at work that to deny yourself the option of dating a co-worker would seem to artificially narrow the dating pool.

What should employers do?

If two people do happen to hook up at work, there are certain rules of etiquette that should be followed. But if the individuals won’t be respectful and show proper levels of decorum in the workplace, it’s up to the managers concerned or someone in HR to mention to them their behaviour is inappropriate.

If the public displays of affection aren’t too extreme, it may be possible to get the message across to the amorous couple that their conduct is somewhat inappropriate through the use of humour — “Can’t you two just get a room?”

However, if they don’t get the message — or if their conduct borders on being obscene — someone (preferably the individuals’ respective managers) will likely have to have a discreet conversation with them.

Simply telling the couple their conduct isn’t appropriate and there have been some complaints may be sufficient. It may also be appropriate to mention some of the potential problems their behaviour could lead to, as outlined above.

Failing that, implementing a carefully crafted and widely communicated policy on expected standards of behaviour at the workplace may be necessary. It may also be necessary to resort to disciplinary sanctions for repeated or particularly egregious behaviour. However, I personally wouldn’t recommend an outright ban on dating or workplace relationships.

Regardless of the outcome, it makes sense to have a valid and enforceable sexual harassment policy in place. In the case of two amorous employees, things could easily turn sour and lead to allegations based on real or perceived harassment. It may also be a good idea to include a prohibition on a supervisor dating one of her subordinates within that policy — or within a policy dealing with conflicts of interest in general.

Brian Kreissl is managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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