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The Pitfalls of Workplace Romance


Valentine's Day is again upon us, and what better time to remind employees of the pitfalls of workplace romances.

Love in the workplace is becoming increasingly common. The office has taken the place of college, discos, and bars. One study conducted by Robert E. Quinn reported that over 60% of the people surveyed were either aware of an office romance or had been involved in one themselves. A more recent study by Lisa Mainiero, found in her book, Office Romance: Love, Power & Sex in the Workplace, puts the figure at 76%.

These romances seem to be on the rise because people are spending more and more time at the office and they don't have the time to socialize outside of work the way they used to do. They are also attracted to those people who share the same daily successes and stresses as they do.

What are the pitfalls? For the employer, office romances often lead to sexual harassment claims, which they hate. For you, it's not much better. If things go bad in a relationship outside the office, you simply stop seeing the person. But if they go south in the office, you are still stuck with the ex-lover on a daily basis. If that person is a supervisor, you can only imagine how awkward things may become.

Some companies have policies which discourage office romances. For example, one company states in its manual that "If a personal relationship creates conflicts of interest, causes dissension, interrupts the work flow of the parties or other employees, or creates a negative work environment, one or both parties may be asked to resign from the company." If the company is large enough, the policy might read that one of the parties may be transferred to another department or location. If there are no other locations or departments where the relationship would not be perceived as engendering the same problems as in the initial policy, both parties may be asked to leave.

Love is a powerful force, so what should you do if you find yourself in a relationship with a co-worker in a job you love? Start with being discreet. If the relationship does become "serious," and there is a policy in place, accept the fact that one or both of you will either have to transfer or be terminated. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the company will accept the relationship if you are open about it, have a strict working relationship while on the job, and do not have a reporting relationship.

Consider is whether or not you are willing to go public about the relationship. In Quinn's study, two-thirds of the people involved in an office romance tried to keep them secret. Yet, most of the people surveyed were well aware that a romance was, in fact, happening. In other words, they'll probably find out anyway. By being up front about it, you can more effectively deal with the feelings that your manager(s) and coworkers will probably have anyway.

Be particularly careful in the way that you relate to your partner when you're at work together. Don't express intimate feelings or use "pet" names at work. Avoid touching your partner in a suggestive manner. Don't schedule long lunches together or after-hour meetings at the office with just the two of you. Keep your office door open when you're together. Make sure that your manager and coworkers see that your work is getting done and that the relationship is not having a negative effect on your productivity.

And if things do turn ugly and you are being sexually harassed, and then you are terminated, be aware that you may very well have a sexually harassment claim. But you should be prepared that, in pursuing such a claim, every detail of your relationship will be explored in litigation.

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