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Ethical Q&A: Office romance


Ethical Q&AThe final article in her series on being an ethical employer sees Tor Goldfield tackle the delicate issue of office relationships.


I run a medium sized company and suspect that a couple of my employees are either already in a relationship or about to embark on one. While I don’t necessarily disapprove I am keen to get some ground rules in place concerning behaviour in the office. How can I address this without seeming overbearing or creating bad feeling?


The management of office relationships has always been tricky issue for business owners and managers. We all recognise the potential risks of such behaviour, but when people spend such a large proportion of their time at work with like-minded colleagues it is human nature that emotions will sometimes spill over into a more personal arena.

The prevalence of such relationships can be debated but a survey conducted by Jobsite showed that half of the adults questioned had been involved romantically with someone at work. However, a different study – conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management – showed that only 18% of businesses have guidelines concerning romantic relationships between employees. Nearly all of the existing policies focus on the relationship between a superior and a subordinate — and not, for example, on a salesperson and a mailroom worker.

“Nearly all of the existing policies focus on the relationship between a superior and a subordinate — and not, for example, on a salesperson and a mailroom worker.”

Creating a positive working environment where people feel free to chat and engage in light-hearted banter can actually increase productivity but also fosters an setting where colleagues can easily become closer than friends. On the flip side, researchers at Iowa University have published a report showing how office affairs become unhealthy when they go wrong, becoming associated with depression and a drop in morale. “When the romance ends, human resource managers anticipate complaints of retaliation (in 17%), stalking (12%), and violence (5%),” says the study.

While a growing number of organisations are following the US trend of introducing strict rules on romantic behaviour, or ‘love contracts’, that prevent colleagues from becoming romantically involved, in reality this just drives such behaviour underground and makes it difficult to address problems should they arise. In fact, the introduction of such contracts in this country – where workers have to agree to behave in a professional manner if they start dating a colleague – could place firms at risk of breaching the Human Rights Act. The TUC has gone on record to say that workers would have grounds for taking a claim for unfair dismissal if they were sacked for refusing to sign any a document of this nature.

It is important to make a distinction at this time between legislating against genuine romance and sexual harassment. Changes to the Sex Discrimination Act which came into force earlier this year make employers duty bound to protect staff from this form of abuse by colleagues, customers or suppliers. While these boundaries are of course vital to the creation and maintenance of a safe working environment psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles have warned that the unintended consequence of sexual harassment awareness is that women suffer from men’s uncertainty on how to behave.

“Strict rules on romantic behaviour, or ‘love contracts’… in reality this just drives such behaviour underground and makes it difficult to address problems should they arise.”

The academics also identified the emergence of a ‘glass partition’ between the sexes that is damaging the career prospects of women: “Just as the glass ceiling prevents women from reaching the top of organisations, the glass partition prevents women from making the friendships that could help their careers.” They found that 75% of male workers constantly considered the risks of being accused of sexual harassment when talking to female colleagues with humour considered one of the most risky areas.

So, how are office romances best managed in such a minefield of legislation and powerful emotions? My first piece of advice is to not come across too heavy handed by trying to ban such relationships. This will just create an environment of secrecy and mistrust. Conversely, don’t bury your head in the sand and hope this won’t become an issue in your company. Instead address the topic openly by developing a clear policy that states what kind of behaviour is expected by anyone who becomes involved with a colleague, without asking them to sign any form of contract. Make it clear that behaviour which infringes on performance will be dealt with accordingly, as with any other form of inappropriate conduct. This is where having a clear assessment and appraisal system, as discussed in my previous article, will help you to monitor progress in a structured manner.

Develop and provide access to a clear grievance policy that allows people to raise any issues or concerns before they get to the point of making a claim of sexual harassment or other mistreatment. Maintain open lines of communication and ensure that any reported issues are dealt with sensitively and appropriately. Should things degenerate to the point of legal recourse it is best to secure reliable legal representation from someone who specialises in such cases.

Finally, remember that your role as a boss is to provide a safe and productive working environment for your employees, not to control every aspect of their life in the workplace. Treat people as responsible adults but be prepared to take swift action if the situation demands that you intervene.

Previous articles:
Ethical Q&A: Persistent lateness
Ethical Q&A: Effective appraisals
Ethical Q&A: Compassionate leave

Tor Goldfield is director at ethical media relations company Blue Rocket.

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