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Workplace Romance: Who-Dates-Who Might Surprise You

Survey explores workplace romance and 'inappropriate relationships'

A man and woman sitting at a table looking at a tablet.

Of all the employees at an organization, who do you suspect most often reports having had a workplace romance?

Not the rank-and-file. Not the intermediate-level managers. Not the middle-level managers.

It's the owners of a company, as well as its executives, according to a recent Fierce Inc. survey.

The survey, Office Love & Friendship, asked 1,000 respondents about their own experiences with workplace romance and about what they considered "inappropriate relationships" at work. It found that of the 25 percent of respondents who said they'd had a workplace romance, nearly 40 percent were top-level people such as owners and executives.

About 26 percent who admitted to having had a workplace romance were middle-level managers, 25 percent were intermediate-level workers and the remainder were lower-level employees.

Fierce Inc., a global professional development company based in Seattle, conducted the survey from Jan. 26-28.  

While companies differ in their policies regarding workplace dating, many discourage or even ban romantic relationships between executives and subordinates, said Susan Scott, founder and CEO of Fierce Inc.

"Workplace romances may lead to accusations of poor judgment, ethical breaches, favoritism and harassment," the Society for Human Resource Management states in a Q&A on workplace romance on its website (see link below). There also are "risks of decreased productivity and employee morale."

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Policies and Practices: Dating in the Workplace]

It's important, Scott said, that rules about workplace romance are formalized in writing and easily available to everyone at a company.

"While communicating rules and expectations often falls on HR departments, these company norms can and should be discussed broadly, and often," Scott said. "Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable [asking questions about] company rules is also critical."

At those companies where workplace romances are discouraged or forbidden—especially between owners or top leaders and subordinates—high-level executives may nonetheless engage in them because they tend to be risk-takers, said Leslie E. Wallis, shareholder and labor attorney at Ogletree Deakins in Los Angeles.

"The most successful people in any organization are those who are willing to see it fail and only because by [being willing to see it fail] they take the risks that potentially can have a really positive outcome," Wallis said. "If the risk works, there are going to be 'over the moon' effects, and top level executives are willing to take that risk."

Wallis said senior employees may be more willing to report their workplace romances than lower-level workers are because they don't fear repercussions.

"More people at [a high] level are willing to respond [about romances] than people at the lower levels who have some concerns about job security," she said. "One could argue that those who make it to the top in many organizations are willing to step on the heads of people below them, and they don't have as much compunction about engaging in behavior that is deemed as inappropriate by others."

Jean Baur, an author and career coach in Stonington, Conn., said that because executives are in powerful positions, they may feel that the rules that apply to lower-level workers don't apply to them.

"It is that adage that power tends to corrupt," and leaders may feel they can get away with inappropriate behavior and no one will challenge them, Baur said.

Types of Inappropriate Relationships

The survey also found that 1 in 5 respondents observed relationships at work that they considered to be inappropriate. The survey didn't ask respondents what types of relationships they considered inappropriate, but such relationships aren't just romantic, workplace experts said.  

For instance, nepotism can be perceived as inappropriate if relatives in an organization "impact the ability of others to advance in the organization or to get their ideas heard," Wallis said.

"[Relatives] can act as a group to block others," said Edward Howard, regional managing partner at Fisher Phillips LLP in New Orleans. "The issue for employers is how that relationship impacts the work environment and whether it results in inconsistent rule enforcement or favored scheduling for the relative."

While the survey didn't address affinity groups—employees who gather to pursue a common purpose or interest—such groups can lead to favoritism, jealousy and ostracizing, Howard said. Those tied to affinity groups might be more inclined to treat those in the group favorably, while treating those outside the group less favorably. 

"Any relationship that involves an emotional bond between people can become problematic," Howard said. "Whether it results from membership in the same leisure activities outside of work such as sports or a shared political cause, that relationship can result in behaviors that will be detrimental to operations."

Affinity groups can become especially problematic when a supervisor oversees a subordinate who belongs to the same group.

"Favoritism of any sort for any reason is a morale killer," Howard said.

Added Baur: "Employees want the workplace to be fair." If they perceive that it isn't, she said, "it can dampen creativity and collaboration."

The upside to affinity groups, Baur said, is that "friendships bond people together" and that fosters creativity.

"When you are working with people you like, and they're smart, fun and creative, that's a great draw to work," she said. "When we have to stay late or do something extra or take on a role we haven't done before, we are willing to put in the extra effort. Friendships build confidence and create a very good atmosphere. That's really the plus side."

Alison E. Curwen is a freelance writer based in Mercersburg, Pa.

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