& Workplace Romance

The quality of the effort that employees put forward in order to achieve the maximum effectiveness and productivity for the company is certainly reflective of their skills, the training they received, their understanding of the company’s mission and their dedication to that mission. But the employees’ performance on the job is also a reflection of the competency of the human resources component of the company. In large part, the professionals in the human relations department are the drivers that map out the journey (by knowing the policies and laws), start the engine (hire the employees and see to it they are trained), and steer the company through or around whatever hazards lay ahead to the destination / goal.

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If the HR professionals stumble, the company falters. That the HR department is pivotal, no one will disagree; but precisely how the HR department administers fairness and justice — while following ethical considerations, the law, yet trying to be flexible — is where the rubber meets the road in HRM dynamics. In cases involving romance in the workplace, when it comes down to policy, the HR department can sink or swim and the water is always choppy and deep. Enlightened HR management professionals should not establish policies that ban workplace romance simply because of a fear of litigation resulting from sexual harassment.

Reflective Paper

I have had a love affair with a co-worker on the job and have been disciplined because of that relationship. We tried to keep it a secret, and we both conducted ourselves properly while at work, rarely speaking to one another except for reasons of our duties. I don’t think my supervisor or the company president really knew, or understood, the rules or how to handle this situation, and as a result I was transferred to another department and told that I could not date the person I had fallen in love with. I was shocked that the company could tell me what I could or could not do on my own time. That is one of the reasons this course has been interesting and informative for me, and my reflective ideas are based in part on that unpleasant experience. When you mix love with employment, many unexpected feelings and actions can result.

In fact, this course has opened my eyes, from an academic perspective, as to the many aspects — some legal, some company policy-based — that are important to the operations of a company. Learning about deeper issues within the HRM genre is fascinating, but sometimes frustrating as well. I will explain further as the paper unfolds.

Federal regulations and labor laws, civil rights and affirmative action guidelines, and safety and health issues are all part of the HR workplace milieu, and the more comprehensive a potential employee’s understanding of those important aspects of careers is, the less downtime he or she will spend wondering what happened when the door slams shut — or never opens to begin with. That said, while it is important that the jobseeker understand the rules of the road, it is far more crucial that the HR department knows those ropes. Indeed, the HR professional has to deal with federal, state and local laws and ordinances that relate to fairness in hiring practices and workplace supervision — and one or two clumsy mistakes, or one key blunder because a company policy was overlooked, and serious ramifications could result for the HR employee and the company as well. The pressure on HR directors is enormous

As HR / career commentator / consultant / brand expert and author Susan Strayer explains, on any given day the HR employee relations professional might be having a heart to heart with a disgruntled employee that has been singled out from his unit and placed on an employee improvement plan. In the afternoon that same employee relations person from HR is huddled with a woman who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, another employee of the company, and she is uncomfortable being in the same department. Is she being treated fairly? Is the ex-boyfriend harassing her? Is the company policy that forbids employee dating unfair? Is it illegal to attempt to ban dating among employees? What part does the union play?

One of the principal goals of an HR professional is “zero lawsuits,” Strayer explains (Strayer, 2005, p.115). Resolving issues at the “ground level before they escalate” is vital for the HR staff person assigned to employee relations. In this course the responsibilities of the employee relations person has been fully vetted, but the issues surrounding romance in the workplace often carry more weight, are often convoluted and confusing, and require handling by heavy hitters from the legal department.

Robert Mathis and John Jackson assert in their book, “the greatest areas of HR responsibilities are worker compensation and health and wellness programs” (Mathis, et al., 2007, p. 457). Surely the emotional health and social wellness of an employee who has a broken heart is included in that context. The facts are clear though regarding romance in the workplace: over 80% of employees in the U.S. have had “some type of a romantic relationship at work,” according to an article in the International Journal of Business Research (Appelbaum, et al., 2007, p. 31). The authors argue that there are reasons for the “increased frequency” of romance in the office or in the factory; one noticeable reason is that more women are entering the workplace, Appelbaum explains on page 32. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that between the years 1970 and 1980, in executive, administrative and managerial position, the percentage of females jumped from 17% to 38%; in pharmacy the percentages rose from 12% to 24%; and in “operations and systems researchers and analysts” work, the percentage of women went from 11% to 28% (Appelbaum, p. 32).

Add to that the fact that employees are spending more time in the workplace, and it is understandable that romance in the workplace is inevitable. Appelbaum reports on statistics that indicate the average workday for workers aged 25 to 54 (for paid and unpaid work) has increased (between 1986 and 2005) from 8.2 hours to 8.6 hours. Indeed, employees spend “the majority of their waking hours” at work, and hence, the workplace is becoming “a natural dating service” — a “potential hub for romantic involvement” — because people “tend to be more attracted to those like themselves” and at work they have repeated exposure to one another, Appelbaum explains on page 32.

There are positives and negatives associated with romance in the workplace. Recent research reveals that romance can have “an enhancing” effect on the quality and quantity of work output. “Maintaining an appropriate distance while feeling attracted to one another” can result in the kind of stimulation that “increases productivity” (Appelbaum, p. 33). One research project revealed that 17% of males and 15% of females surveyed reported increases in productivity, Appelbaum continues. On the other hand, “boss-subordinate” relationships (“hierarchical” relationships) tend to “impede the productivity of participants and their peers” (Appelbaum, p. 33).

My Opinion — My Reflections

Meantime, a ban on workplace dating seems first of all unfair and antisocial and secondly it seems to be impossible to enforce. I agree with C. Boyd that dating bans are not so much directed toward the protection of female employees, but rather they are instituted to protect employers from liability claims that result from sexual harassment. It is an “employer self-interest vs. employee rights issue” (Boyd, 2010, p. 325). Naturally a company wants to protect itself against embarrassing public relations gaffs, against litigation of any kind, and companies are quite right to wish to keep peace among their stakeholders, including employees. Boyd takes ample time in his scholarly article to point out all the justifications for companies having rules regarding workplace dating. Most of them seem logical and legal on the surface. He also explains why some scholars believe banning dating should not necessarily be viewed as a hideously antisocial rule. The employer’s “legitimate business interests in maintaining a peaceful and productive work environment and avoiding liability outweigh an employee’s right to privacy,” Boyd explains on page 329.

The radical other side of that argument for tight restrictions on employee dating was expressed by successful author and editor Helen Gurley Brown, who, Boyd explains, “went so far as to advocate that female office workers should actively seek sexual relations in the workplace,” in particular if a female worker sees relations to be in her own “best interests” (Boyd, p. 331). In this case I think Brown was referring not to “sex” in the workplace per se, but rather romantic attractions from one gender to another gender.

The more you research this issue, the more interesting the arguments become, and the more diversity in opinion you discover. On page 332, I agree wholeheartedly with Boyd’s points about the frequent use of by companies. Many companies (that is a vague generalization but there are no hard data so “many” is appropriate) are insisting their employees undergo frequent and professionally-administered sexual harassment training because proof of giving those mandatory training sessions gets a company off the hook in many cases from “punitive damages” resulting from sexual harassment lawsuits.

The U.S. Supreme Court has given employers “little choice” in the matter, Boyd explains. If a company “can prove” they took “reasonable care” in order to prevent or to correct inappropriate behavior, under the law they have (in many cases) “safe harbor” from punitive damages (Boyd, p. 332). The author states that sexual harassment training “has evolved to become an ornate administrative display which has the appearance of concern” but which in fact is “expedient in that it mitigates employer liabilities in any future court cases” (p. 332).

Charles a. Pierce, Professor of Management at the University of Memphis, offers another approach for HR managers in his article published by . He asserts that “nearly 10 million workplace romances develop annually” in the U.S. And “about 40% of employees” have had a workplace romance (Pierce, et al., 2009, p. 448). The reasonable and logical point of Pierce’s article is that there are better ways for HR managers to deal with workplace romances. Pierce lists 20 studies and the implications of those studies for HR leaders. Many of the studies took the “legal-centric” position that workplace romances lead to harassment lawsuits, hence the emphasis on harassment training. But Pierce explains that only 4% of HR professionals surveyed by SHRM reported that sexual harassment claims actually led to litigation.


Pierce (p. 457) also writes that because “more than 70% of U.S. organizations do not have a written policy on workplace romance,” the first step in dealing with workplace dating is to develop “and enforce” policies that all employees must read and understand. The policy seems fair and reasonable and well thought out. The policy should explain: a) what types of romances are prohibited (supervisor-subordinate); b) what types are discouraged (extramarital affairs); c) what types of relationships are permitted or encouraged (romances between peers from different departments); and what actions management will take when violations are discovered.

If these policies had been in place in the workplace where I experienced an unfortunate turn of events, I would have abided by them and everyone would have understood what management expected and that the HR department was firm and clear in its policy position.

Works Cited

Appelbaum, Steven H., Marinescu, Ana, Klenin, Julia, and Bytautas, Justin. (2007). Fatal

Attractions: The (Mis) Management of Workplace Romance. International Journal of Business Research, VII (4), 31-43.

Boyd, C. (2010). The Debate Over the Prohibition of Romance in the Workplace. Journal of Business Ethics, 97(2), 325-338.

Mathis, Robert L., and Jackson, John H. (2007). Human Resource Management. Florence, KY:

Cengage Learning.

Pierce, Charles a., and Aguinis, Herman. (2009). Moving Beyond a Legal-Centric Approach to Workplace Romances: Organizationally Sensible Recommendations for HR Leaders.

Human Resources Management, 48(3), 447-464.

Strayer, Susan. (2005). Vault Guide to . New York: Vault, Inc.