Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Developing Policies to Effectively Manage Workplace Relationships

Organizations range from having no workplace relationship policies to possessing strict guidelines that do not allow any type of workplace romance. The general consensus of human resources professionals states that instead of banning relationships in the workplace, companies should focus on managing these relationships properly, efficiently, and in a legal and ethical manner. The most successful policies minimize risk and maximize rewards of workplace relationships. Policies should encompass legal concerns, but also extend beyond them to protect personal and culture interests as well.

It is important to distinguish what types of control that the company can exert over these relationships. They obviously cannot control attraction or employees’ behavior outside of the office, but they can create rules and policies and a corporate culture that fosters appropriate behavior regarding workplace romances.

Some companies choose to rely on anti-harassment policies and codes of ethics already in place in order to mitigate workplace relationships. Others create policies and procedures specific to the handling of workplace romances. There are positives and negatives of strict, lean, and non-existent workplace romance policies. Strict policies that ban workplace romance are largely ineffective and lead to low employee morale. Furthermore, a problem with developing policies on workplace relationships is that they often infringe on the employees privacy rights regarding their personal lives.

In order to create and efficient and effective workplace relationship policy, a company needs to protect themselves from litigation and lost productivity, while protecting employees privacy and benefiting from the positive effects on work productivity.  This can typically be achieved by limiting relationships between supervisors and subordinates, maintaining standards for appropriate office behavior, covering legal bases, and monitoring of office relationships by management and human resources.
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Does Your Sexual Harassment Policy/Training Cover Workplace Relationships?

Although sexual harassment policies previously were only thought to be applicable to unwanted advances by a boss or co-worker, they now need to include protection from backlash after a failed office relationship. 

Some employers do not have a specific on office romances in place, and rely on their sexual harassment training and policies to cover any issues that may arise due as a result of an office romance.  However, whether or not a company has a specific policy regarding office relationships, their sexual harassment policies and training should cover this subject.

The main point associated with sexual harassement policies and office relationships deals with the aftermath of a failed relationship.  If one party feels particularly scorned by the outcome of the romance, they may resort to sexually harassing their former paramour.  It is important that companies protect the victim of this harassment, as it involves different nuances from the harassment caused by an individual they were not previously in a relationship with.

The person causing the harassment may be doing so in a vindictive fashion, but they also may just be intending to "win" their former partner back.  But if this physical or emotion attention is unwanted, it is still sexual harassment, and can cause suffering on the part of the victim and costly litigation for the company.

It is important that companies review and update their sexual harassment policies and training in order to incorporate information regarding office relationships.  Human resources professionals and managers should be on hand to address and grievances or questions that an employee may have regarding these policies.
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Monday, May 17, 2010

Managers: Are You Being Fair to Those in a Relationship?

Managers must be actively involved in the management of office relationships during all stages: prior to the relationship’s conception, during the relationship, and if applicable, after the relationship ends.

Workplace romance policies do not only affect those involved in the relationship. These relationships put managers in an interesting position. If policies are to prohibit workplace relationships, managers must enforce this non-fraternization policy among co-workers, which can often be awkward and ineffective. However, if workplace relationships are permitted, supervisors must maintain the relationship within the bounds of the company’s policy, as well as assuring that it does not affect the employees’ work or productivity.
Managers can take important steps to inform, assist, and support their employees regarding the subject of workplace relationships. Through managing the inevitability of workplace romances in a positive way, companies can alleviate some of the concerns and negative outcomes created by romantic involvement in the office setting. They can promote a culture that understands and acknowledges the presence of workplace romances, as well as maintaining an atmosphere that is flexible and trust-based.

Allowing employees to make informed decisions regarding their personal relationships can foster an environment that is understanding and trusting. Furthermore, managers and human resource professionals can create a guide to workplace relationships to be used as a supplement to the legal policies and procedures governing such partnerships. They could also implement support systems to resolve issues between workers coping with the aftermath of a failed workplace romance. It is important for both members of the former relationship to feel “in control” and that they are supported by managers and protected by policies at the company.

Tips for Professionally Maintaining a Workplace Romance

Those involved in an office relationship can maintain it effectively without affecting job performance, co-workers, or their career. Research conducted by CareerBuilder in 2010 shows that employees no longer feel the need to keep office romances secret. 67 percent of over 5,000 employees surveyed that they feel no need to hide an office relationship. This figure is up significantly from 54 percent in 2005. Offices are often coming up as the “number one” place to meet a potential love interest, and companies are realizing that they have to accept the inevitability of co-workers becoming romantically involved with one another.

However, that does not mean that all pairings at work are considered acceptable. If one or both partners are married, the relationship is off-limits. And the general consensus at most companies is that relationships between bosses and subordinates are hands-off.

Due to the possibility of retaliation post-breakup, those interested in pursuing a workplace relationship are advised to take it slowly. A long corporate courtship can lead to a more stable relationship that is less likely to have a negative impact on the career of either person involved.   Employees involved in relationships should adhere closely to their company’s policies and procedures regarding workplace romance. If they are required to report the relationship to the human resources department, they should do so as soon as possible.

Additionally, employees should practice appropriate behavior towards each other in the workplace. Public displays of affection should be nonexistent and the couple should address each other as co-workers, not romantic interests. Those involved should take care to not exclude members of their team or department by being too involved with each other.

If the relationship ends, the individuals previously involved in the relationship need to maintain a professional demeanor in the office. Neither of those involved should attempt any sort of revenge, sabotage, or retaliation. One of the caveats of becoming involved in a workplace relationship is that if the relationship ends, both members need to continue to work together and remain professional.

What Does Steve Phillips Mean for Workplace Relationships?

In the case of Steve Phillips, he was fired after admitting to a relationship with a much younger production assistant. This affair had a much more sordid twist, as the staffer appeared at Phillips’ house and confronted his wife. Phillips claimed that Brooke Hundley became “obsessive and delusional” after he ended the affair. It was also noted that Phillips had a history of sexual involvement with fellow employees and subordinates.

These incidents have created focus on workplace relationships, mostly on those between supervisors and subordinates. The incidents sparked discussion and debate on the consequences of even consensual relationships between manager and employee. Experts stated that even if both parties agreed to the relationship, co-workers could accuse the supervisor of favoritism towards the employee involved in the relationship. Furthermore, the employee could feel as if they have to remain in the relationship to avoid retaliation from the manager.

The case of Steve Phillips served to solidify the fact that it is unwise for supervisors to be romantically involved with subordinates.  Especially when it is a case of a married supervisor involved with a young and single subordinate.  Although workplace romances remain acceptable and even beneficial, relationships between married supervisors and unmarried subordinates typically result in negative consequences.  

Why are Workplace Romances More Common Than Ever?

Although relationships between co-workers were once considered taboo, they are now more common than ever. With more women in the workforce than at any point in history, people working longer hours, and the office being cited as a great place to meet a mate, romance in the workplace is now inevitable as opposed to off-limits.

Workplace romances have been completely transformed due to more relaxed working environments, proximity of employees working together, and technology that allows co-workers to communicate more frequently and efficiently. Studies show that there are several motives attributed to becoming involved in a workplace relationship: love (people truly wanting to be together), ego (the desire for excitement and adventure), job (pursuing work-related benefits), and power (seeking to achieve power and visibility in-and-out of work).

Whatever the motive, workplace relationships disappearing anytime soon.  Companies that have been slow to adopt policies regarding such relationships are getting on the ball and working them in to their existing policies.  Workplaces will only continue to grow as a place to meet a potential love and it seems many people are taking advantage.

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How Workplace Romances Can Positively Affect Productivity

While workplace romances can have negative affects on productivity, they can also have positive results.  Office romance can actually foster productivity and create a more positive working environment.

Positive work performance and motivation is often directly related to an involved person’s loving feelings toward someone in the same organization. In fact, those involved in a successful workplace romance tend to be happier, enthusiastic, and more motivated in the office. Furthermore, those involved will often be determined to alleviate a managers’ fears that the relationship will have a negative affect on their performance.  Therefore, they will work harder to demonstrate that the relationship is not having a negative affect on their work.

Additionally, co-workers may be happy to see a successful couple in love, and with a renewed enthusiasm for their job and performance. Groups can become happier and more cooperative together with the introduction of a new social aspect in the group. If a couple maintains professional demeanor in the office, then co-workers are likely to be much more accepting of the relationship.

If the relationship continues into something more serious such as marriage, the positive affect can grow even stronger.  There are many examples of couples working happily and productively together.  This relationship can foster teamwork and closeness in the office and have positive results.

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What Do Jim and Pam Mean for Office Romances?

Jim and Pam.  AKA PB&J.  AKA the couple we love to love on Thursday night television.  If you are not familiar with the hit sitcom, The Office, Jim and Pam are co-workers.  Jim is a sales representative and Pam was a receptionist when they became romantically involved.  In fact, when Jim became interested in Pam, and when they first kissed, Pam was actually engaged to another co-worker.  Scandulous, no?  It goes on.  Pam's former fiance, Roy, an employee of the warehouse division of the company came into the office and attempted to inflict physical harm on Jim, when he was thwarted by a fellow co-worker.

Pam and Roy called it quits for good and she ignited her relationship with Jim.  Several seasons later, and Jim and Pam are happily married with a daughter.  Pam has been promoted to sales, where she works directly with Jim.  Happy ending, right?  Of course.

However, Jim and Pam are actually an inappropriate representation of a workplace romance.  Throughout their long courtship (which begins as a close friendship), Jim and Pam both often neglect their work to spend time with each other and play pranks on co-workers.  Then, they become physically involved when Pam is already romantically committed to another co-worker.  And not only do they become involved, but they do so right in the middle of the office.  When Pam's fiance finds out about the interaction, he attempts physical harm on Jim with no retribution from human resources, management, or law enforcement.

At one point in the series, Jim receives reprimanding from higher management about his wasted productivity due to spending time with Pam, but this only addressed briefly.  Jim and Pam do report their relationship to human resources, much to the chagrin of the HR representative, who happens to be smitten with Pam himself.

Of course, The Office is a television show, and not real life, but it showcases one of the most famous fictional office romances on television.  It's wonderful that the relationship worked out and progressed to marriage and parenthood, but the professionalism in their journey could have taken a bit of work.  Anyone thinking of getting involved in an office relationship should not take notes from Jim and Pam.

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How Workplace Romances Can Negatively Affect Productivity

There are two sides to the coin regarding workplace romance's effect on productivity.  One side maintains that office relationships are detrimental to one's career and productivity at work.  People of this opinion maintain that those in office relationships are making their co-workers uncomfortable and are constantly open to scrutiny and accusations.

When in an office relationship, one can become distracted and spend more time cultivating their relationship than completing their assigned work.  Also, the newfound closeness of two co-workers can cause intra-group conflict when those in a relationship work closely together.  Co-workers can feel left out and excluded from the relationship, and group morale can decrease.

Relationships in the office can also lead to accusations of favoritism, whether real or perceived.   If an employee is dating a supervisor, and is either getting special treatment, or being perceived as such, the effect on productivity will be negative.  Finally, a person unwillingly in a relationship could be subject to sexual harassment, which can cause them to become distracted or uninterested in their work.

But the most negative affect on productivity is when a relationship ends.  Although those involved may have the best intentions of continuing to act professionally in the office, the opposite is usually true.  Awkward and uncomfortable conditions are likely to ensue and one or both of the members of the former relationship will not be completely focused on work.  And in a worse case scenario, one member of the relationship may begin harassing or bullying the other, leading to an inability to focus on one's job.

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What to Do When Your Office Romance Goes Sour

One of the possible downsides to having an office relationship is the possiblity that the relationship may end.  This creates an awkward situation for all involved as the previously romantically involved individuals are now forced to work together and act in a professional and civil manner even though the relationship did not work out.

If the relationship ends, however difficult, the people previously involved in the relationship must remain professional at all times.  By entering into an office relationship, you accept the possibility that the relationship could end and that you will need to continue to see each other and work together on a daily basis.

Neither of the individuals involved should attempt any sort of sabotoge, revenge, or retaliation.  If a party feels that they are being harassed or treated negatively in any way, then they should report this to the human resources department immediately.

If the company requires it, the relationship should be reported to human resources both at it's inception and dissolution.  Following these procedures will protect both the employees and company in the instance of any backlash or retaliation by either member of the previous relationship.

If either member feels they cannot act professionally in the office towards their previous mate, then they should attempt to transfer to another department, or find another position outside the company.  Causing problems in the office post-relationship can have a detrimental affect on one's career, as well as their co-workers.

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Love Contracts: Are They Effective?

To further protect a company’s interests in avoiding litigation, many have introduced “love contracts” for employees having a relationship in the office. These are documents signed by the individuals involved in the relationship, along with the company, that ensures the voluntary and consensual nature of the relationship. These contracts can protect companies from potential litigation if the relationship were to go sour. If a relationship is ended, management or human resources should continue to check back in with both members of the previous couple to ensure that no harassment or ill treatment is taking place.

Love contracts may also include guidelines regarding a couple's behavior within the office.  Additionally, The love contracts generally make arbitration the only grievance process available to the participants in the office romance.  Although, one would think that these contracts are ironclad in protecting employers against litigation, co-workers are continuing to go to court over the differential treatment the employee in the romantic relationship received from the manager - and they're winning their sexual harassment cases.

These contracts are not foolproof for several reasons.  For one, an employee can allege that they were under duress or being forced to sign the contract.  Additionally, for the love contract to work, the employees actually need to be willing to report their relationship to human resources.  A couple who is already married, a same-sex couple, etc. may be unwilling to admit their relationship for fear of scrunity. 

Although love contracts can be effective in protecting companies from litigation, they should also have supporting plans to back up the coverage of the contracts.  Having appropriate policies and sexual harrassment training in place will further protect a company from costly, time-consuming, and potentially damaging lawsuits.
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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Office Romance: What Do Your Co-Workers Think?

Although you may think that your office romance only affects the two people involved, it also has an impact on your co-workers and team members.

Several issues arise through co-workers perception and treatment of office romances. These range from a co-worker feeling “left out” to litigation brought on by co-workers. Perceptions of an office romance by co-workers can be positive or negative dependant on how they perceive the motivations of those involved in the relationship. For example, romantic involvement between peers is seen as more acceptable than between supervisor and subordinate.

There are many issues involved with the perception of a supervisor dating a subordinate. One is trust. Co-workers may feel that the employee will tell the manager anything to get ahead, including secrets or lies about fellow co-workers. Furthermore, co-workers may feel that the subordinate is enjoying special treatment and receiving an unfair advantage in the workplace. Loss of trust among co-workers can lead to lessened productivity and dissolution of teamwork.

Additionally, a workplace romance can lead to lower morale amongst team members. If co-workers feel that a person involved in a relationship will receive special treatment, they may feel that they do not need to bother to do a good job. Loss of caring about work and performance can be detrimental to a company.

Being involved in a workplace relationship can also violate office norms. Groups and departments often developed norms and boundaries regarding personal and professional behavior. Group members may become discouraged and lose motivation and camaraderie due to violation of the office norms. The other group members may become decide to retaliate or get revenge if they are frustrated by another group member’s involvement in a workplace relationship.

The group may also fear that their reputation as a team could be damaged by a members’ involvement in an office romance. They may fear that they team will not be taken seriously by others who are aware of the relationship.

However, workplace relationships can also have positive affects on a team. If the participants in the relationship were close with team members prior to entering the relationship, and the dynamic does not change, then teamwork can continue to move along smoothly. Additionally, the newfound “closeness” of those involved in the romance can bring the entire team closer together. The increased motivated and enthusiasm brought forth by the couple can also re-energize the group and make them more motivated and productive as well.

Furthermore, although there are co-workers who would look negatively upon those involved in an office romance, there are also those who would think positively about it. Co-workers may be happy to see a successful couple in love, and with a renewed enthusiasm for their job and performance. Groups can become happier and more cooperative together with the introduction of a new social aspect in the group. If a couple maintains professional demeanor in the office, then co-workers are likely to be much more accepting of the relationship.

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The Modern Workplace Romance: No Longer Taboo?

As workplace romances become more common, the boundaries are being pushed even further.  According to a 2010 Wall Street Journal Europe article, a courageous employee of Cisco Systems even proposed marriage to his longtime love right in the office.

According to a 2010 CareerBuilder survey, 67 percent of over 5,000 employees surveyed see not need to hide their office relationships.  This figure is up from 54 percent in 2005.

So what does this all mean?  Although Baby Boomers felt the need to keep office romances a secret, employees in the modern workplace feel no need to do so.  Companies are becoming more open with their policies regarding office relationships, and more and more people are finding love in the workplace.  The office is often listed on surveys as the number one place to meet a mate, and single employees are catching on.

However, there are some relationships that still remain taboo.  It is still considered unacceptable to date a married co-worker, or to overtly show affection in the workplace.  Relationships between supervisors and subordinates are generally considered off-limits as well.  But even with some restrictions, office romances are flourishing in the modern workplace.

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Extending Beyond Legal Approaches to Managing Workplace Relationships

The typical legal-centric approach to workplace relationship management and policies focuses on minimizing risk.  However, there are ways to manage these relationships by both minimizing risk and maximizing reward.

There are several risks of office romances, including sexual harassment, unethical relationships, unfair interventions, and disruptive breakups.  Most "traditional" policies focus on the ramifications of these issues. 

However, there are also many rewards to workplace romances.  They can result in successful long-term relationships, enhanced job performance, increased job satisfaction and a stronger organizational commitment.  In order to minimize the risk and maximize the reward of office relationships, a company must take a balanced and sensible approach.

First, they should create an effective policy towards workplace relationships, along with an ethics code and efficient performance management system.  With all of these elements in place, a company can create a workplace environment that is sensible and understandable for their employees.  Second, the policies should focus on cost-management.  A company can become involved in expensive litigation as a result of a workplace relationship gone wrong.  To minimize these costs, experts recommend prohibiting relationships between direct-reporting supervisors and subordinates.  "Love contracts" between dating employees can also minimize any possible future litigation.

Companies should also focus on managing the benefits associated with workplace romance.  By allowing relationships between "power balanced" employees, a company can reap the positive results discussed above.  Finally, a company should train human resource leaders effectively to manage workplace relationships in an appropriate manner.

By extending beyond a legal-focused approach to workplace romances, a company can reap the positive rewards of such relationships while warding off possible negative consequences.

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What Does David Letterman Mean for Workplace Romances?

The David Letterman scandal has been dominating the news as of late.  On October 1, 2009, Letterman announced live on his show that he had affairs with several women who worked in his office.  Letterman claimed that the relationships were consensual, and so far, no one has stepped forward to say otherwise.

What was the reason for this sudden admission?  Letterman was a victim of an extortion plot orchestrated by Joe Haldermann, a CBS producer.  Haldermann threatened to release a tell-all book and screenplay if Letterman did not hand over $2 million.  Instead of paying up, Letterman contacted police, Haldermann was arrested, and Letterman confessed all on his late-night show.

This incident has sparked much discussion in the world of workplace relationships.  Even though the relationships appeared to be consensual, does that make them ethical?  In this situation, Letterman was obviously in the "supervisor" position, while the women involved were subordinates. Experts state that even if both parties agreed to the relationship, co-workers could accuse the supervisor of favoritism towards the employee involved in the relationship. Furthermore, the employee could feel as if they have to remain in the relationship to avoid retaliation from the manager/supervisor.  Many observers of the case, including Kathie Lee Gifford and Ann Curry, wondered if the relationships could have created an unfair working environment. 

Many companies have policies banning relationships between supervisors and subordinates.  However, in the case of Worldwide Pants, they do not have a policy prohibiting sexual relationships between supervisors and subordinates.  Whether or not what Letterman did was "right" or ethical, it has caused many companies to revisit their workplace relationship policies, especially those involving supervisors and subordinates.  

What are your feelings on relationships between supervisors and subordinates?  Should they be acceptable as long as they do not disrupt productivity and fairness and are reported appropriately to the human resources department?

Real Couple: Aubrey and Jeremy

From time to time, we will be featuring "real couples" on the blog.  That is, couples that met at work...and made it work!  We'll conduct an interview with these couples, and you can comment at will.  If you are interested in being featured as a "real couple," please email loveontheclock@gmail.com.

Names: Aubrey Roff and Jeremy Sambuca
Where they met: Home Depot in Albany, NY
How long they worked together: Only a few months (it was a summer job)
How long they've been together: 7 years and counting

Aubrey and Jeremy met during the summer of 2003 at a Home Depot store in upstate New York.  Aubrey was home from college for the summer and Jeremy was on summer break from a local college.  Their meeting was actually quite coincidental, as Aubrey was assigned to a different store location up until the last minute.

The pair claims that is was definitely not love at first sight; well, not for both of them anyway.  "I thought he was kind of a dork," says Aubrey, "I think he was definitely more into me at first."  But Aubrey did agree to go on a date with Jeremy, where they clicked and continued dating throughout the summer.  At the end of the summer, Aubrey had to return to school 100 miles away, but the couple decided to give the long-distance thing a try.  Two years later, they moved to New York City together and the rest is history.  The couple is set  to be married on June 12, 2010.

So how did they keep things in line at work? "We kept it professional," said Jeremy, "I didn't stop by her cash register too much during the day.  Sometimes we would pass little notes back and forth if things were slow.  We didn't show any public displays of affection at work."

"You could be a little more lax because it was a more laid back environment," remarked Aubrey, "Sure, we didn't kiss or anything at work, but I would page him for 'assistance' in the garden section if I was working out there [laughs] I mean, we were young too.  I would act a little differently in a more professional environment nowadays."