Love may be patient and kind, but if it doesn’t boost profits, your boss is likely to disapprove of a workplace romance. Even in 2015, workers at the same company who want to date often confront managers who are increasingly concerned about the risks such relationships pose to the firm.
Since women began to enter the labor force en masse about 50 years ago, romantic relationships between co-workers have become increasingly common. Thirty-eight percent of Americans now say they’ve dated a co-worker, according to Harris Poll results released by CareerBuilder Thursday. It’s not always just a fling: In that group, 31 percent of respondents say they met their current spouse at the workplace.
“Oftentimes, you’re a resource for each other,” says Amy Salvaggio, an associate professor of psychology with an academic interest in dual-earner couples and workplace romance at the University of New Haven.
For instance, a pair of doctors who meet at the hospital can form an intense bond over their shared experiences: the grueling years at medical school, the weird, late-night shifts in the emergency room and other particular work-related stresses.
“There are a lot of tangible benefits -- you commute together, you take vacations together, talk about the same co-workers together,” Salvaggio says.
Still, some managers frown on office liaisons, which they regard as productivity-sapping distractions. No significant studies back this idea, but the myth still holds to a surprising degree.
“People love drama,” says Laurie O’Loughlin, vice president of human resources at the Inpro Corp. in Muskego, Wisconsin. “It’s why they make these reality shows on TV. People love to hear the stories of what’s going on between employees and their personal lives, and it can really affect productivity.”
The last decade has seen a major spike in employer-crafted policies that outline which kinds of relationships are tolerable and which ones are not. In 2005, 20 percent of human-resources professionals polled by the Society for Human Resource Management, SHRM, reported the existence of such policies. In 2013, the comparable figure had jumped to 42 percent.
“If you have no rules or regulations, it’s analogous to being in the closet,” says Alan King, president of the Raleigh, North Carolina-based Workplace Options, which provides HR services for companies around the world. “So for organizations that we advise, we suggest that they come up with guidelines about relationships. That’s the key factor -- address it openly and consider it as a strength of the organization.”
Companies tend not to issue blanket prohibitions on employees dating one another. Even today’s mega-employers in the service sector -- outfits such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the Target Corp. and the McDonald’s Corp., whose labor records have been heavily criticized -- allow the rank and file to court each other.
A much larger proportion of employers block relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Some go even further than that: 45 percent of those polled by SHRM in 2013 block affairs between “employees of significantly different rank,” a considerable uptick from the 16 percent in 2005.
Another problematic area is sexual harassment, a legal and public-relations nightmare for bosses across the country. As a result, a growing share of employers have resorted to the “love contract.” Popularized on an episode of the TV show “The Office,” the contract provides confirmation by both parties that the relationship is voluntary and consensual, removing the threat of expensive litigation.
Some white-collar industries tend to intrude more than others on employees’ personal lives.
“These sorts of policies are more common in sectors like finance or accounting, places where control and conformity are important for the business model,” says the University of New Haven’s Salvaggio. “These are places where you’ll see more emphasis on formality.”
Inpro’s O’Loughlin appears to sympathize.
“You expect people to act like professionals in the workplace, but unfortunately they don’t always act like professionals. There are times where employees may do something with each other that makes other employees uncomfortable or that’s offensive,” she says. “There are always people who get caught doing things in parts of the building that they don’t think anybody goes in. It’s always uncomfortable for everybody involved. I’m not sure why people think you won’t get caught, but usually you get caught.”