Love Conquers All Workplaces
With less time to date outside the office, more of us are pairing off with the cutie in the next cubicle—with the boss's OK.
When Cupid's arrow pierces flimsy cubicle walls, the integrity of careers and private lives can be punctured as well. But with professionals spending more time in the office than they did 20 or even 10 years ago, love and the paycheck are inseparable. Who has time to seek a partner for life -- or lust -- anywhere else?
"Work life has taken over normal life, yet it's been stripped of humor, joy and pleasure," says Julianne Balmain, author of Office Kama Sutra. Balmain sees romance as a way to restore humanity in our career-dominated existence.
Employers make office romance policies—or not
For their part, most employers take a practical approach to love in the workplace. "Managers have come to realize that you can't outlaw office romance any more than you can outlaw competition," writes lawyer Randall Kleinman in Rough Notes magazine, an insurance trade publication. This realization has led many employers to offer guidance to the randy rank-and-file, and to take decisive action when required by their own ethics or sexual harassment law.
Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) doesn't have a policy specifically addressing personal relationships between employees, according to Robyn Burke, a director of human resources at the IT services provider's Somerset, New Jersey, office. "Often there's been informal counseling for people who get involved," says Burke. "We tell them it's fine to have a relationship, but you must remain professional."
But like many corporations, CSC draws the line where office romance introduces the strong possibility of a lawsuit. "If you're involved with someone who reports to you, that's dangerous ground," says Burke. "We have zero tolerance for sexual harassment," and the potential for harassment exists in any intimate relationship between boss and subordinate, she adds.
Management at Ultra Clean Technology, a high tech manufacturer in Menlo Park, California, makes a similar distinction. "We don't have a stand-alone policy on romantic relationships, but we do have a policy on conflict of interest," says Nancy Nelson, director of human resources. The potential for conflict of interest is greatest with boss-subordinate relationships, where favoritism can sow the seeds of resentment in coworkers.
Document workplace dating rules
Rosemary Agonito, a Syracuse, New York, consultant and author of Dirty Little Secrets: Sex in the Workplace, believes companies should go further in codifying guidance to employees. "I think it's a mistake to have no policy at all," she says.
When dealing with liaisons between peers, employers must strike a balance. "Forbidding these relationships just drives them underground," says Agonito. "But employers can require disclosure of relationships." Such a disclosure might lead to the transfer of one of the employees involved in a boss-subordinate relationship or to the signing of a "dating waiver," in which both employees agree they've entered the relationship willingly.
Many employers strongly discourage any suggestive behavior between bosses and subordinates. But "flirtation itself is not actionable sexual harassment, unless it's excessive," says Michael Yelnosky, an associate professor of law at Roger Williams College in Bristol, Rhode Island. For employers, "addressing sexual harassment has lots of upsides," says Yelnosky. "When a company has taken reasonable steps to prevent harassment, that can be a defense to a sexual harassment claim" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Although all employers should ban boss-subordinate relationships, "their policies should vary according to company culture," Agonito says. Local standards help determine whether tolerance of peer-to-peer relationships will raise or lower coworkers' morale.
What about the final frontier in office romance, the dalliance that is consummated on company premises? Beyond embarrassment, lovers who sneak off to the server room risk termination, according to Balmain. "But no pain, no gain," she adds.