Don’t fall in love with the help (Editor’s notes)

No workplace immune from office romance fallout
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/18/2009

There’s nothing illegal about an office romance. But, oh, the headaches it can bring for employers. Late night king David Letterman thrust workplace trysts into the spotlight after admitting — in a startling on-air confession — he had sexual relationships with women who worked on his television show.

There was no apparent legal wrongdoing in the relationships. There have been no charges of sexual harassment, no sordid tales of bitter breakups that disrupted the workplace. In fact, the whole affair likely would never have come to light except for the fact somebody allegedly tried to blackmail him to the tune of US$2 million.

But that’s the problem with office romances. They create an undercurrent in the workplace that can boil up anytime and create unexpected — and complicated — problems. And no workplace is immune.

Four in 10 workers (40 per cent) said they have dated a co-worker at sometime during their careers, according to a CareerBuilder.com survey of more than 8,000 workers in the United States conducted earlier this year. And 31 per cent said they went on to marry the person they dated at work.

The numbers aren’t surprising. After all, people spend a lot of time at their jobs. It’s only natural friendships and relationships will blossom. But when the bloom comes off the rose, things can get ugly in a hurry.

If an office romance sours, and the breakup is particularly nasty, it can have a significant impact on morale and even productivity. Workers who used to work well together may no longer be able to be in the same room together. Co-workers will often pick sides, creating a further rift in the office. And sometimes people will even leave — seven per cent of respondents have quit because of an office romance, according to the same survey.

In an area that gets muddy for employers, 42 per cent of respondents who have dated in the workplace have gone out with their boss and 34 per cent have dated somebody in a higher position. Letterman’s shenanigans fall into that category. Whether true or not, dating someone higher up the food chain creates the illusion of favouritism and the potential for conflict of interest.

One woman who claims to be one of Letterman’s lovers appeared on air regularly. Did she get to appear on TV just because she had a relationship with him? Any promotion she received will now be suspect and, rightly or wrongly, people will assume she only got it because she was sleeping with him.

Other women who worked for him, who didn’t get to appear on air or were passed over for a promotion might wonder if that’s the only reason why.

The undercurrent of sexual tension in the workplace can get even uglier. Flirting and crushes are rampant in the workplace. Ten per cent of workers said they currently work with someone whom they would like to date, with more men (14 per cent) than women (five per cent) reporting they would like to do so, found CareerBuilder.com.

The problem here? What is considered harmless flirtation to one person could be sexual harassment to another. What one person views as a simple crush could be seen as “stalker-like” behaviour by another. This kind of inappropriate behaviour is an entirely different kettle of fish than a consensual workplace romance, and one that has to be met aggressively by employers.

There have been countless lawsuits lost by employers that turned a blind eye to borderline behaviour a worker found offensive. A sexually charged workplace culture is never a positive one.

So why not just ban workplace dating? Employers could attempt to implement a policy expressly forbidding office romance. They could certainly discourage it, especially when it comes to management dating subordinates.

In situations where a romance is between unequals, it may be appropriate for an employer to step in and suggest one of the workers seriously consider changing jobs so she is not in a relationship that poses a conflict of interest.

But a few stern words from HR and a piece of paper aren’t going to stop human nature. All employers can really do is appeal for common sense and hope employees will behave appropriately when engaging in consensual relationships.

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