Lonely Hearts Club: Valentine’s Day Can Depress Some Workers

By Dana Wilkie Feb 11, 2016
Everything may be coming up roses for some workers on Valentine’s Day. But for others, the holiday can be a deflating reminder that they just ended a romantic relationship, that they’re lonely, that they’re not as popular as some co-workers, or that a blossoming romance between a manager and underling seems inappropriate.

Employers need to be sensitive to all workers when planning Valentine’s Day events, when giving cards or gifts, and when making policies regarding workplace romances, said Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options, a Raleigh, N.C.-based work/life benefits company.

“We get a lot of calls and cases from employees suffering from depression and similar emotional issues this time of year—not just in the U.S., but globally as well,” Debnam said. “If someone feels slighted by not getting the type of reaction or attention from a co-worker that they are hoping for, it can lead to larger issues. And these issues become bad for the individual and bad for business.”

Celebrations

“When you're alone, it's common to feel as if everyone else has someone,” said author and career coach Jean Baur.

“That's why creating events that include the whole team is so important,” she said. “The workplace is not a dating agency, and shouldn't be one. And yes, our personal lives intersect with our work lives, but it helps if management is sensitive to the needs of all employees.”

Baur suggested that the HR department or managers can host an office lunch or have an after-hours event to celebrate the holiday.

“The focus should be on inclusion and fun,” she said. The focus should not be on romance or on “couples” at work, she added.

“Avoid situations that make the divisions in a company greater. So, for example, if there's a company party, mix people up, assign seats so that they can't sit with their best friends. Make it interesting and have some fun icebreaker activities.”

Gifts and Cards

If managers are handing out cards or chocolates, they should be certain to hand them out to all their subordinates, Debnam said.

“If people want to give gifts publically in the workplace, they need to consider the ramifications—intended and not intended,” Debnam said. “If a certain person is left out or not included, it can create problems. Emotional conflict on some level happens in pretty much every workplace on the planet, but the more organizations can recognize it and deal with it before it becomes a serious issue, the better it will be for the company, the business and the employees.”

Said Baur: “It reminds me of what used to happen when I was in school. The popular kids got Valentines from everyone, and many others received few or none. Most schools now have a policy that if a student wants to give Valentines, he or she has to provide them for everyone. I think this is a good policy for the office too, as a box of chocolates or a card on one person's desk could create conflict or jealousy.”

Romance at Work

Sometimes, Valentine’s Day gives an employee an excuse to express hidden feelings for a co-worker—perhaps by leaving a romantic card in a locker or candy on a desk. Such advances, however, may be unwelcome.

Baur and Debnam offered these suggestions:

 -Remind managers that unwanted gifts and cards can make employees feel uncomfortable or harassed.

 -Ask managers to watch for signs that their subordinates are uneasy around certain co-workers.

 -Remind employees before the holiday what kinds of behaviors are unacceptable and how to report harassment.

Finally, Valentine’s Day is a reminder—and not always a comfortable one—about romantic relationships that have blossomed while on the job. Workplace romances can alter the dynamics between many employees, not just those involved in the romance, Debnam said.

“We provide emotional counselling and support to employees around the world, and we get all kinds of cases that stem from romantic involvement between colleagues or co-workers—allegations of favoritism, legal inquiries, organizational conflict, mediation requests, emotional counselling, you name it,” Debnam said. “Employers have to be very clear about their policies that guide personal relationships among co-workers or employees.”

CareerBuilder released a survey on Feb. 11 that found nearly a quarter of office romances involve a superior and 17 percent involve someone who is already married. The survey also discovered that more than 2 in 5 employees don’t know that their company has dating policies in place.

Debnam said that many employees who contact his service complain that their company treated them unfairly when it discovered the employee was in a romantic relationship with a co-worker.

“They didn’t know their employer’s policies about dating or getting romantically involved,” Debnam said. “Employers need to clearly communicate what they deem to be acceptable and what actions they believe could have a negative impact on their business. The biggest failure in this area, like so many things, is either a lack of communication or ineffective communication on what’s expected and what’s not.”

In addition to reminding workers about the company’s dating policy, employers that do allow dating should require workers to report consensual relationships. The reporting should note that the relationship is welcomed by both parties. This can help the company defend itself in a future sexual harassment case and can allow employees to have appropriate relationships openly.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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