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Dealing With an Office Romance

When employees become romantically involved, should you anticipate trouble? Here's some real-world advice on the matter.

Love and marriage may "go together like a horse and carriage," but the question for entrepreneurs is, "Do they go together in today's business environment?"

Work, after all, is the place where many people spend more than a third of their lives, and it's possibly one of the best places where employees can find a potential mate who shares similar life goals and attitudes.

But as romantic as that sounds for someone who's looking for love, dating in the workplace poses many problems for business owners. That's why many businesses have rules against office romances; some even have rules against hiring married couples.

Before you find yourself facing this potentially sticky situation, let's take a look at some of the factors that come into play when potential couples begin to mix their personal lives and professional responsibilities on the job.

Let's Give 'Em Something to Think About
"Why the concern? We're both adults," your canoodling employees might say. But adults don't always act like adults, especially when they're in love--or when the person they're dating falls out of love with them.

Consider these risky situations. What would happen if the couple has an argument? Would they be able to keep their personal lives separate and away from the workplace? Or would they act out their feud on the job? And would other employees be pulled into their disagreement, forcing co-workers to take sides? Would it detract from their own and/or other people's workplace productivity?

And what about the issue of favoritism? For instance, if one person in the relationship supervises the other, will he or she be able to be fair and objective when delegating responsibilities or distributing work projects?

The questions get even more complex when you take into account the organizational chart. Would the supervisee have the same power or influence over his or her boss as any other employee would have? Would the supervisor be able to evaluate the supervisee in a fair and equitable manner, or would the supervisee be given a more positive and lenient treatment? Would decisions be made that are motivated by the personal relationship vs. the merit of the idea or the individual(s) involved? Would the lower-level employee in the relationship be given special consideration by their partner when it came to handling tasks, responding to situations or fulfilling the job requirements?

Other perils abound: Due to the closeness of the relationship, either of the employees could inappropriately or accidentally divulge information to his or her partner. This could easily occur in the course of sharing events of the day with one another. Just how sensitive is the information being passed on?

An equally challenging question to ask is this: Do other employees believe that because of the special relationship and special allegiance the pair of employees has to one another, that these other employees can't discuss or complain about the other individual? If that's the case, then issues that might normally be discussed and brought out in the open might possibly remain unspoken and unaddressed. And when employees feel that communication is blocked, for whatever reason, morale can suffer. Worse yet, what if they thought the situation was bad enough that they were forced to do something drastic, like file a discrimination suit?

There are other dilemmas, too, for the business owner. What happens if and when the couple breaks up? Will other employees feel the effects of the "divorce"? Again, will they be asked or expected to take sides? Will they feel any of the hostility that may be directed at the other person in the former relationship? Will there be a negative tension in the workplace environment?

You also need to consider another possible and quite serious result of a breakup, especially if there's a difference in rank between the two individuals involved. What if one party claims sexual harassment and considers a lawsuit? In this instance, one party can claim to have suffered undue pressure to remain in the relationship lest their job performance be negatively evaluated.

Taking the Right Steps
Obviously, the best way to avoid the negative repercussions of a romance gone sour is to forbid your employees from dating and never hire married couples. Realistically, that could prove extremely difficult and even more challenging to enforce in today's world, although these are options that some companies have taken in an attempt to avoid this type of situation.

It's extremely critical, especially as your company grows, to get ahead of the curve. The best thing to do would be to work closely with your HR person or an HR consultant to anticipate problems and then set up remedies. For instance, you might provide sensitivity training for both men and women about what constitutes sexual harassment. Or you might establish a policy that supervisors aren't allowed to date their direct reports.

Your goal is to provide a professional atmosphere where your company goals can be achieved. Ideally, the working environment should be pleasant enough that your staff can enjoy themselves while being as productive as possible.

Just remember, interpersonal relationships between your employees will inevitably develop. And while the outcomes of those relationships could be far more complex than you may have imagined, being aware of the potential drawbacks and what types of relationships are developing will go a long way to keeping the environment as "hazard free" as possible.

Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.

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