Office romances can give HR heartburn

When things go well, people gossip and scrutinize and act awkward. When things go poorly...
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/15/2005

At this time of year, as employees rouse from deep-winter doldrums to plan a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner or surprise their loved ones with a delivery of roses, it might seem curmudgeonly for a human resource practitioner to fret about the havoc that may yet ensue.

Curmudgeonly, perhaps, but it’s simply a fact of the HR life: office romances are trouble. Even when things go well, people gossip and scrutinize and act awkward. When things go wrong, well, anything could happen.

Former lovers may start spilling secrets and lies about each other. Teamwork situations may turn tense to the point of being intolerable. To escape the mess, people may leave for a job elsewhere. And those are just the normal outcomes, the ones that HR can leave well alone.

Small wonder, then, that some HR practitioners can only shudder at the thought of employees getting involved at the workplace.

Office romances are “often bad news,” says David Crisp, a former vice-president of HR at a department store, now doing public speaking on leadership issues. Over the years, he has accumulated only too many stories of times his HR department had to intervene, including one time when workers were caught having sex at work.

Most problematic for HR, says Crisp, are affairs that involve a manager and a subordinate.

“When you’ve got someone working directly for you and you start dating the person, you can turn the whole office upside down. Other people find out and wonder what secrets are getting passed back and forth, what favours are being done, whether this person is going to get promoted before they get promoted,” says Crisp. “They may not be actually occurring but everybody worries about them.”

Most organizations have an anti-nepotism policy which says a manager can’t hire a relative into a reporting relationship, and usually this policy covers people who are dating each other.

“But if people take up with each other once they’re in their jobs… you can’t legislate against human nature,” says Crisp.

The thing to do, then, is for the HR professional to sit down with the couple and say, ‘“Look, this is going to look bad even if there’s nothing going on. In the next few months we think we should look for an opportunity to move either one of you. Who wants to move?’ And hopefully, both of them put their hands up.”

And if neither does, who usually has to move?

“Well, let me put it plainly: it has been typical to look at the woman as the one who has to make the move. It’s unfortunate. Today, yes, it’s the less senior person you look at, but that’s also usually the woman.”

Crisp has a story from his own personal past — prior to the department store job — to illustrate that rule. As a director of HR, he was working with “this great HR manager” who was “exceptional at what she did.” They had a few drinks together after work. “Turned out both our (current) relationships broke down at the time. We talked for a few months, off and on, and eventually I asked her out.”

Knowing the course things must take, Crisp was already contemplating possible moves before asking the manager out. “Maybe you date for four or five times and then you go, ‘Hmm. We’ll have to look at how to resolve this.’”

Given that the manager had been there longer than he, and that “she had been able to rise to a level above where her qualifications would take her at another company,” he decided he would be the one looking for a job offer, says Crisp.

With an offer in hand, Crisp told his boss he was leaving. “I’ll raise your salary,” the boss said. Crisp replied that it wasn’t about the money. The boss offered him more responsibility and raised the pay again.

“So I said, ‘Look, the bottom line here is I need to move. And if you promise me you won’t do anything about I will tell you why,’” says Crisp.

“He wanted to know, so I said, ‘Without intending to, I got into a relationship with a subordinate manager.’ And I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth when he said, ‘Oh we could move her.’”

(Crisp made the move, but the relationship ended a few weeks later anyway.)

Sometimes it’s just not possible to move the parties involved. In such cases, the best thing to do is to be open and above board, says Crisp. If anyone else knows, everybody would need to know. And the couple will have to understand there will be extra scrutiny on their conduct.

Even outside a direct reporting relationship, office romances between two people of different ranks can expose an organization to charges of harassment, says employment lawyer Lynne Poirier of the Ottawa law firm Emond Harnden.

“Even if it seems consensual, you could be at risk. The relationship may go downhill at one point, and the (subordinate) may file a complaint against you saying she was subject to expectations of certain behaviour in exchange for preferential treatment or positive evaluation, because managers talk to each other,” says Poirier. “There’s always the possibility of one party exercising authority, and that’s the danger there.”

Despite the potential for messy outcomes, neither Poirier nor Crisp sees blanket no-dating policies gaining any favour.

Rather than no-dating policies, Poirier would advocate employers to expand their harassment policy to include workplace relationships that are disruptive. “You should give examples of those relationships that are frowned upon. I’ve seen templates for a consent form for someone to sign and say, ‘I will not file a sexual harassment complaint against the company,’ but I haven’t seen it signed too often.”

When companies put in no-dating policies, says Crisp, it’s usually when “bosses get frustrated when the odd relationship goes wrong, and they want to fix it. But usually, as an HR professional, you would discourage a boss from having an anti-dating policy. I would, because I liked dating.”

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