Flirting with trouble: How close is too close?

Originally published in the Indiana Minority Business Magazine.

Research by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Philosophy says up to 40 percent of workplace relationships can result in marriage. And while some workplace romances may seem harmless, they, in fact, can lead to serious problems, says Charles A. Pierce, a professor at the University of Memphis, whose research includes sexual harassment studies.

Workplace flirting or fraternization encompasses relationships that can go beyond the normal scope of employee interactions, including supervisor-to-subordinate sexual and romantic unions. The dangers arise when work and the well-being of the workers are affected.

For example, an employee having a relationship with a supervisor can lead to favoritism, whether intentional or not. Experts like Pierce say people naturally want to protect and support those they are close with, so lenience, promotions and privileges can shape workers who are dating.

In other cases there can be general issues of tension and division between the parties involved and other workers on the floor. In extreme circumstances, if workers and managers takes sides, it can lead to complaints, lawsuits, distraction and decreased morale. Pierce says there are more than 50 federal and state workplace romance-sexual harassment legal cases since 1980, and that figure does not include the much larger set of cases handled internally without going to court.

On the realistic end, workers developing interpersonal relationships is considered “inevitable,” by researchers. Individuals spending 20 or more hours each week tends to build closeness and the sharing of goals and attitudes. Another professor, Amy Nicole Baker at the University of New Haven, published a study saying most workers don’t mind seeing two unmarried couples develop a romance after becoming colleagues. They did, however, object to relationships between supervisors and subordinates and in relationships where parties have a spouse outside the workplace.

These results, which were presented at an American Psychological Association conference, indicates that workers are unsure of the lasting effects of a workplace relationship, particularly since nearly everyone has seen the negative effects at some point.

“It’s possible that workplace romance participants are happier with their jobs, more motivated and, hence, perform better,” Pierce said, but when things go wrong it can distract others, too.

Ultimately, it becomes a management responsibility to decide how to handle these situations. Some companies have policies forbidding office relationships and hiring married couples. However, many companies, for legal reasons, shy away from such strict rules.

Instead they institute fraternization policies, which focus on conflict of interest issues, unlike sexual harassment policies, which deal with EEOC definitions of illegal behavior. These policies make it clear that supervisors cannot date subordinates.

As for worker-to-worker relationships, which are harder to manage, Margaret Fiester, a human resource specialist, says company officers cannot realistically ban all romances. “I think, though, you do need to have a clear-cut policy on workplace romance,” Fiester said in Business News Daily.

The Society for Human Resource Management said formal policies are more prevalent now than it was one decade ago, and some of these policies request workers to let supervisors know about their relationships. In these cases, employers are reserving the right to take action on employment status, whether that’s a transfer of parties to a different division or early termination.

In the end, the key is about fostering open communication between all parties long before prohibitions are made. It is possible to have workplace relationships be a non-factor, so managers must take this into account as well.

For small businesses especially, the threat of a workplace harassment lawsuit can crush a firm’s financials, so having the policies in place is the best action to take in the beginning. If all sides are on the same page, the book can keep turning.