Caught in a bad romance…
Is love in the air at your workplace on and around Valentine’s Day?
If so, remember this: It makes good career sense and common sense to proceed with caution when engaging in workplace romance.
While office dating can send you to the honeymoon suite, it’s more likely to land you in the heartbreak hotel, outside on the company doorstep, or in a red hot legal mess.
Whether you’re shooting Cupid’s Arrow or being struck by it, workplace romance can have a detrimental impact on your career.
Office dating can damage your prospects for advancement, negatively impact your health and wellness, while causing your productivity to plummet. Employees should recall the age-old adage about the perils of mixing business with pleasure.
Last year, CareerBuilder said work romance was at a decade-long low point in the wake of #MeToo.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, office romance hits a 10-year low
This Valentine's Day, office workers would be wise to think twice before sneaking a box of chocolates to the cutie in…
Rather than embrace a fruitless fling, strive to maintain professionalism per a respectful work environment. Make sure to abide by the norms and values which reflect your company culture and brand image.
Although some co-workers may date and marry, many more end up with broken hearts and pink slips. That’s why it’s essential to weigh the pros and cons of workplace romance prior to making any rash decisions — even if Valentine’s Day makes you feel risqué.
The prudent course is taking office romance outside the office and keeping your hormones in check inside the office.
Pros & Cons
Some people say that a positive work romance can elevate employee engagement, leading to higher morale and greater productivity.
But the opposite is true about getting caught in a bad romance, which can cause your performance to plummet and result in a host of other problems.
Employees tend to get in trouble when they are overzealous and persistent in making unwanted romantic overtures.
This can occur whether a gesture of love/lust is real or perceived, explicit or implicit, intentional or unintentional.
Such situations arise when one party receives a negative response yet continues to act in a salacious or provocative way. If this happens, then the aggressor should apologize for any misunderstanding and walk away.
Workplace romance gone bad can poison the office environment and sabotage team dynamics.
Negative results can include allegations of sexual assault, harassment, retaliation and emotional distress.
In a worst case scenario, one or both parties might be subjected to an internal or external investigation leading to serious discipline, demotion or even termination.
What one employee assumes is innocent banter or a playful ploy on the giving end can be perceived as rude, insensitive or hostile on the receiving end. Locker room talk and gossip can run rampant. This can result in ruined reputations and legal repercussions.
Why take a chance with your career and livelihood?
Love Contracts & Legal Liability
Workplace romance puts you and your employer at heightened risk for any alleged misconduct or unlawful actions, like sexual harassment.
Even if you’re not looking for love there’s no telling when a mutual attraction might spark office dating. This is due to the frenetic pace and intensity of work, buttressed by close contact for a long duration (which is prevalent in some industries more than others — see “Worrisome Workplaces” below).
That’s why C-Suites and general counsels are increasingly shielding companies against legal liability through so-called Love Contracts.
Perhaps you’ve already signed a “Consensual Romance in the Workplace Agreement” either voluntarily or without even knowing it.
Some employers might embed the fine print of these Love Contracts within the broader employment contract. This is similar to language regarding mandatory employer arbitration agreements to resolve workplace disputes.
Read between the lines before signing on the dotted line. Don’t be subjected to waiving your legal rights unknowingly.
Also consider the legal ramifications of online sexual harassment in today’s ubiquitous mobile, digital and virtual Information Age. Remember that hostile work environments can occur via email, texts and social media posts on company equipment during business hours.
When Valentine’s Day falls on a work day your personal conduct may have unforeseen consequences for the office environment and company culture.
Dating Info for Dummies
While close working relationships may unexpectedly lead to love, it’s always best to tread lightly, exercise caution and common sense.
This may sound like dating info for dummies, but history and employment case law show that professionals can exert unwanted sexual pressure on disinterested parties in a variety of ways.
You’ve likely heard that sexual harassment is not always about sex.
To the contrary, sexual harassment can arise from a power play when a manager or supervisor tries to exert control over a subordinate.
Some Gen Xers, like me, watched the 1994 Hollywood blockbuster, “Disclosure” (movie trailer below). The film follows the story of a female boss (Demi Moore) who sexually harasses a married male subordinate (Michael Douglas) and then tries to turn the table on him.
The results is an untenable work situation and litigation.
Millennials & Gen Z
Workplace romance can be dicey for a new generation of young people who are new to the workforce.
Millennials and Gen Z are not always aware of their employment rights, legal protections and professional codes of conduct. This makes them especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and management abuse.
Young people might assume that sexual harassment is part of the work culture because they don’t know otherwise and don’t want to make waves.
Younger workers might be fearful of speaking out due to victimization, retaliation, or embarrassment. No one wants to risk derision by co-workers or adverse employment action by supervisors for complaining.
While sexual harassment of teens and 20-somethings can occur within any industry, some professions are more prone to trouble than others.
Industries with worrisome workplaces include restaurants, hospitality and entertainment, among others.
Low-wage employees and undocumented workers face greater risk of being targeted for exploitation. Some jobs may inadvertently promote an informal atmosphere where horseplay morphs into a fraternity-like environment.
Malicious managers in their thirties and forties can exploit high-school or college-aged workers on their first jobs. That’s why the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) launched their national Youth At Work initiative in 2004.
Youth At Work: Home Page
Welcome to Youth@Work, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) website for youth in the…
Some older employees may naively consider patting, touching or rubbing up against a young co-worker as innocuous behavior. Yet the young worker on the receiving end could easily take offense at such egregious behavior.
That’s why a literal “hands-off” policy at work might be the best option.
Some people don’t want to be touched by anyone in the office regardless of gender — perhaps with the exception of a professional handshake.
Zero Tolerance policies and sensitivity training can be effective measures to prevent sexual harassment if correctly implemented. Potential victims should be encouraged to stand up, speak out and assert their statutory rights, rather than being silenced due to fear of retaliation.
Companies should communicate office romance policies from the top-down, starting with the CEO, to make sure the message is taken seriously by everyone.
When it comes to Valentine’s Day or any business day, it’s best to keep romance outside the office. This is a common sense and practical approach regardless of one’s status in the organization.
Still, despite the potential pitfalls, if you choose to pursue an office romance then be certain it’s consensual and not a one-way street leading to a dead end.
While there will always be pros and cons to office dating, you should be mindful that the risks generally outweigh the rewards.
Nevertheless, workplace romance can appear unavoidable when Cupid’s Arrow strikes and sticks. This is particularly true on and around Valentine’s Day, in addition to holiday parties, company travel and office retreats.
Whether you are struck by Cupid’s Arrow or shooting the arrow, always think before you act and proceed with caution.
Remember that many jobs are temporary in today’s fluid gig economy, while many romances are tenuous. That’s why it makes good business sense to be vigilant on Valentine’s Day and every other work day.
Don’t let Cupid’s Arrow kill your career.
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The author is a former national spokesman for the EEOC and a current advisory board member and contributor to American Diversity Report.