Love Is in the Air: How to Manage Office Romances

By Art Langer, writer
Apr 17, 2019
Image Credit: Stefanolunardi/Shutterstock

Companywide policies can help avoid the negative consequences of office romances.

In the award-winning American television series The Office, a small Pennsylvania workplace is rife with romantic relationships that would horrify any actual HR department. Despite its overdramatized relationships, the comedy sitcom isn't too off base regarding the real-life ubiquitousness of in-office romantic relationships.

One-third of adults in the U.S. are or have been in a workplace romance, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). This can, unfortunately, create a minefield of problems for all involved. In addition to reports of intimidation and favoritism, additional research shows that 5% of office romances end in litigation.

The consequences of office romances

Office relationships often cross workplace superiority levels. In a CareerBuilder study, 35% of the women and 25% of men surveyed said they've dated someone at a higher professional level than themselves. In addition, 27% of women and 16% of men reported dating their direct boss. These types of relationships can create a host of problems for not just those involved, but the company as a whole.

Office relationships, regardless of whether they involve bosses and their direct reports, also threaten to diminish office morale and employee satisfaction, not to mention they might lead to one or both partners in the relationship leaving the company.

How to avoid the negative ramifications of workplace romances

Generally, zero-tolerance policies are considered unrealistic, unnecessarily stringent and ineffective. In fact, they tend to encourage employees to keep their relationship a secret, which is the opposite of what HR departments should want.

To maintain a smooth-running office, companies should consider requiring employees to disclose in-office romantic relationships. This is something The Office's fictional company, Dunder Mifflin, got right. In those policies, be specific about dos and don'ts. For approved office romances, remind employees that professional behavior is always required in the office and at offsite company meetings and events, and those relationship problems should be left at home.

Disclosure may be difficult to enforce, but HR should welcome it by creating a no-judgment zone. It's widely understood that keeping one's work and personal lives separate is a wise practice. Phrases like "don't mix business with pleasure" and "leave your baggage at the door" are common when it comes to professionalism. So, employees may be wary of admitting in-office relationships to HR for fear that it will negatively impact their careers. Research shows that 1 in 3 romantic office relationships will end in at least one person being fired.

To encourage disclosing in-office relationships, company policies should clearly state that disclosure will not affect an employee's career trajectory or reputation. HR teams should stress that disclosing a workplace relationship does not mean employees have to admit their relationship to their co-workers, which may alleviate their fear of office rumors and gossip.

Companies often focus on recruiting top talent and analyzing the productivity and performance of their staff. But they also must understand that their employees are, in fact, human. Workplace romances are fairly common and should be expected. By enforcing strong but empathetic HR policies, companies can ensure their staff feels respected should they meet someone in the office and protected if they are mistreated by a superior or colleague.

Dr. Arthur M. Langer is the Chairman and Founder of Workforce Opportunity Services (WOS), a nonprofit committed to developing the skills of untapped talent from underserved and veteran communities through partnerships with organizations dedicated to diversifying their workforce. He is Professor of Professional Practice, Director of the Center for Technology Management, and Academic Director of the M.S. in Technology Management programs at Columbia University. He serves on the faculty of the Department of Organization and Leadership at the Graduate School of Education (Teachers College). Dr. Langer consults with corporations and universities on information technology, staff development, management transformation, and curriculum development around the globe. Prior to joining the full-time faculty at Columbia University, Dr. Langer was Executive Director of Computer Support Services at Coopers and Lybrand, General Manager and Partner of Software Plus, and President of Macco Software.
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