Would you ever consider office love? This account of the fall out when it goes wrong might help you decide if it’s really worth the risk.
If the United States has an almost 50 percent divorce rate, what is the success rate of dating? Even lower. Everyone at the office is holding their breath for the inevitability of the big break-up. When the breakup happens, people may take sides. Coalitions may form. Who’s the bad one who caused the breakup? This makes for high drama at the office.
The same Vault Inc. survey found that only 22 percent of office romances led to marriage or a long-lasting relationship. When the love is good, everyone is happy but when the love goes sour, watch for the fall out. Many people feel office dating is not a good idea because if the happy couple breaks up, they still have to see and work with each other on a daily basis. Your coworkers the audience watches and waits for the broken couple’s drama to unfold. This is not conducive to a productive work setting for anyone.
Sam was an operations manager for a security organization. He became romantically involved with a direct report, Ginny, who was married a major no-no for two reasons. First, he was her boss, which set himself up for a potential sexual harassment claim later down the road. Second, she was married, which set up office workers to make moral judgments.
The organization’s policy prohibited romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Of course, everyone at the office found out, and it almost brought the house down. Everyone felt uncomfortable and conflicted. Sam’s relationship with Ginny impacted his credibility. His department was not functioning, and the problem of morale went all the way to the top. By the time the two were called into a disciplinary meeting, the relationship was over. But the damage had been done to their respective careers. Sam stayed, but Ginny left the organization. For two years, Ginny’s friends at work held on to hostility toward Sam, and the atmosphere at work was tense and uncomfortable until her friends eventually left.
Today Sam is militant about not allowing workplace romance. The organization has taken extreme measures, such as no holiday luncheons, company barbeques, staff birthday parties, drinks with coworkers after hours, or off-site dinner award banquets.
Does Cupid Have a Place in the Office?
Workplace romances sometimes present a threat to organizational effectiveness through their negative effects on participants and coworkers. Other times, workplace romances can enhance workplace effectiveness through their positive effects on participants and their coworkers. Everyone enjoys being around people who are happy and walking that high of a new relationship. But remember the danger and potential landmines lurking in the hallways.
One of the major red flags of an office romance landmine is hierarchy, when one person reports to another (as with Sam and Ginny). Another kind of office romance is utilitarian, in which one participant satisfies personal/sexual needs in exchange for satisfying the other participant’s task/career needs. Yes, it is often called sleeping your way to the top. Sex is provided as a utilitarian vehicle to get that promotion. It’s not a behavior we advise.
Get your organization to provide training for supervisors and managers about how to discreetly address overt sexual behavior in the workplace. Also encourage them to make the supervisors comfortable in coaching the dating couple if the relationship results in lowered morale and productivity for themselves or coworkers. Few organizations take this kind of proactive measure. Save your organization a lawsuit and enhance productivity by making the supervisory staff as comfortable as possible with managing inevitable workplace romances.
Also know that women may pay a higher price for office romances. The negative outcomes are more pronounced for women, especially if a woman is under direct supervision of the man. It’s the “she-slept-her-way-to-the-top” syndrome. Coworkers may not say it, but they can’t help but think it, right?
Women can’t win in this dating game, regardless of their status. If a woman is a subordinate, she gets special favors; if she is the boss, she is perceived as overstepping her boundaries more than a male supervisor. No getting around it the double standard exists.
Let’s reverse the status. Janet was a supervisor in a city government agency. Her employee, Jim, was attracted to her. Eventually, they began a romantic relationship. It was good for about nine months, and then it was over. Jim knew part of the thrill and adventures of a forbidden romance was breaking the rules. He decided to take advantage of the new found power that he held over her when they broke up. Janet became a hostage to the fear that he would tell her supervisor. So he began coming to work late and not attending required meetings in the county. Those were just a few of the offenses. Janet turned a blind eye but was well aware that he was neglecting his job duties. The longer Janet was paralyzed with fear, the more outrageous his behavior violations became. At one point, she walked into his office and he had a woman sitting on his lap. If that wasn’t enough, the woman made no effort to get off his lap when Janet walked in. Janet lost credibility with her staff. She felt trapped, and Jim knew it.
So Janet made a bold move that could have cost her a 20-year career with the county. She had no choice. Coworkers were lined up at her office door reporting one frustration after another with Jim’s poor performance (or no performance, in some cases). Janet went to her boss and admitted her mistake dating Jim. They got the county attorney involved, and disciplining Jim became a long and difficult process. Eventually, Jim left the county and went to work for another city government.
We can all learn from Janet’s story.
Code switch: If you are a supervisor thinking about becoming romantically involved, you have options. Your employee can move to another department. Remember the double standard; women pay a higher price.
Adapted from Audrey’s book (co-author), Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen.