By Joanna L. Krotz
Like it or not, office romances happen. Often. Most employers, from globetrotting CEOs to neighborhood shop owners, are bound to encounter a workday moment when the rumor about an employee couple rises to the level of confirmed entanglement. In fact, office affairs seem to be on the rise. The majority of HR professionals (64 percent) and more than half of employees (55 percent) indicated that the number of workplace romances had either increased or remained stable over the preceding five years, according to a 2003 online survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and CareerJournal.com, a site owned by The Wall Street Journal. So it’s not a question of whether bosses ought to address the issues of on-the-job hanky panky. It’s a question of when and how. You need a plan.
To be smart, be prepared to think instead of wink. Here are five contemporary rules of the road to keep employee affairs within bounds.
1.) Brake for unequal status, and take action. “There’s an inherent imbalance of power when a supervisor and a subordinate are involved,” says Teresa Butler Stivarius, an Atlanta-based employment lawyer at Epstein Becker & Green. “That could tip either way when the relationship goes south — and it often does. Either way, somebody ends up on the wrong end of an adverse act. “If stung by a breakup, the manager may retaliate by withholding promotions, pay, career-enhancing assignments or other key benefits from the subordinate. On the other side, the subordinate may accuse the supervisor of discrimination or harassment even when the relationship was a consensual one. For potential messiness, manager-staffer involvements are liable to be the worst. What to do when it happens? “Remove the supervision,” Stivarius says. “See that the supervisor no longer has any decision over the subordinate’s terms and conditions of employment.” She also suggests that at the outset you ask each partner to sign a statement saying the relationship is consensual and they agree to the policies you’ve set up.
2.) Watch out for favoritism. The corollary of Rule No. 1 is to avoid any appearance of sex for favors, potentially a legally liable situation. Other staffers may notice that one or another of the happy couple enjoys some unfair advantage or advancement. Then you have a staff-wide issue, some grumbling, and also potential grounds for employee discrimination suits.
3.) Short-circuit inappropriate behavior. Setting ground rules for romantically involved employees is the first step, says Arlene Vernon, a human resources consultant in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. That should include setting clear guidelines for behavior and making sure none of the other employees is made to feel uncomfortable. Your best policy may be an open one. In the Society for Human Resource Management survey, both HR pros (46 percent) and employees (56 percent) thought it a good idea to talk to the couple in order to avoid problems. “My partner and I made sure to get both people together and openly discuss the situation,” says Jack Sims, who co-founded two marketing agencies and is the author of “Growing Small Businesses into Big Brands.” “We tried to treat all of our employees as adults and we expected them to act the same.” When that didn’t work, “they had to expect that someone else would take their place.”
4.) Avoid high school reruns. When the breakup occurs — and, of course, that’s the likely scenario — guard against the ripple effects among the rest of the staff. There are bound to be friends of his and advocates of hers. No one gains from a work week spent gossiping about who’s right and who’s hurt and so on — not to mention the loss in productivity. Much of this will be influenced by how the couple behaves. Again, a frank talk might be in order.
5.) Mind the store. Your first priority must be to your customers and valued suppliers. If any one of them becomes uncomfortable or disapproving about a staff relationship, you’ve got a problem and potential damage to your company’s reputation. Haynes, whose company handles several government contracts, explains that federal agencies do not tolerate on-the-job romance. Simple as that. As a result, when a federal client learned of an extramarital affair between two of the company’s employees, the client “approached both of them to explain his disapproval,” Haynes says. Fortunately, one of the employees subsequently ended up quitting, and damage to the company was avoided. But there’s a real question about whether that contract, and perhaps future ones, was put at some risk.