Ethical Dilemmas for Managers in the Workplace
Technology in the Workplace: Implications for Employees and Employers

Dealing with Office Romance in the Workplace

Should You Become Involved with A Co-Worker?

Most of us have been there before. We become attracted to a co-worker and are not sure what to do about it. The first step is to understand just what is your company’s policy on such matters. Some companies permit office relationships so long as it’s not between a superior and subordinate. These relationships are fraught with danger including a conflict of interests in performance evaluation. All employees should be treated fairly and it becomes difficult for a superior to treat someone he or she is dating the same as another employee with no such relationship. Moreover, charges of sexual harassment may follow if the relationship goes south. At the very least the workplace becomes an uncomfortable place to be.

Surveys indicate that office dating is more common than one might think. In a survey by in 2009, 40% of respondents revealed that they have dated a coworker, with 18% indicating two or more such relationships. An additional 12% are on the sidelines but looking to join in. Office romances extend across the age spectrum. Employees between the ages of 35 and 44 are the most likely demographic to date a coworker, with 44% acknowledging that they had done so. In the age group of 55 and older, 34% of employees admitted to having an office relationship.

The potential dangers can best be illustrated by looking at what can happen. David Letterman's situation is instructive. On Oct. 1, 2009, Letterman revealed on his TV program that he'd had sexual relationships with several women on his 70-person staff. Letterman made his public declaration after receiving a package of materials about the affairs which "contained clear, explicit and actual threats that [were designed to] … destroy the reputation of Mr. Letterman and to submit him and his family to humiliation and ridicule." Rather than pay the $2 million demanded by the extortionist for his silence, Letterman informed the authorities (who arrested the suspect) and made his own public revelation of the whole business.

Questions immediately surfaced: Was Letterman guilty of sexual harassment? Would anyone pursue legal action, charging that they felt coerced into affairs with Letterman, even if the liaisons appeared at the time consensual?

And there were questions concerning the impact Letterman's behavior had on the entire workplace: Would other employees file formal charges that their knowledge of Letterman's sexual relationships created a hostile work environment biased against them? Did he display favoritism toward his romantic partners that he denied non-romantically involved coworkers?

Employers need to develop a policy that declares management's expectations, which could help shield companies from legal liability either by preventing unacceptable incidents or at least reducing them. The elements of the policy are similar to those needed to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. This was a topic of a previous blog. Suffice it to say that companies need to prove that they took two steps. The first is that they took strong action to prevent office romances from engendering favoritism, sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. The second is that if these problems arose, the companies activated a response plan to halt the suspected violation immediately, to investigate the circumstances thoroughly and in an unbiased manner and to penalize guilty perpetrators according to existing guidelines.

But to help prevent problems from occurring in the first place, employers should educate employees regarding the companies' policies concerning office romance. The cornerstone of an employer's efforts to prevent favoritism, sexual harassment and hostile work environments is a policy statement--in writing and widely circulated--informing all employees that the employer actively seeks to identify and eliminate all problems stemming from sexual dynamics. The policy should include a complaint procedure, a distribution plan and a system for timely investigations and corrective action. The policy statement should be clear, emphatic, easily understood, free of confusing legal terms, and provide examples of conduct targeted for immediate dismissal.

To support the policy statement, top management should set the tone by emphasizing in ethics training programs the dangers of becoming involved in an office romance when supervisory relationships exist. Moreover, while a supervisory relationship may not exist at first one may develop down the road if one party or the other is promoted to a position with supervisory authority. As with all issues that should be evaluated from an ethical perspective, the consequences of one’s actions should be considered prior to making a decision whether to date a co-worker.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 26, 2011