According to a 2017 survey, office romances like the Obama’s are not rare. In fact, more than 50% of those surveyed say they’ve participated in some kind of office romance with 10% of those surveyed saying they met their spouse/partner at work.
Coworkers spend long hours with one other. They depend on each other, collaborate together and probably even vent to one another. They get to know each other well, which can often lead to romantic interests — particularly if they’re left with little time outside of work to meet someone.
Office trysts begin the same way any romance does — with shared interests and attraction. It’s a fact, consensual office romance happen, but given recent news events, is there still a place for them?
Studies show that office romances can increase job satisfaction, motivation and morale overall, says University of Alabama law professor Daiquiri Steele.
“Office romances have also been found to lead to increased creativity — to add more dynamic energy to the workplace,” Steele says.
But when they go wrong, she says, former office romances can lead to decreased productivity, morale — and charges of sexual harassment.
Chai Feldblum, a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who recently co-wrote a report on workplace harassment, says the #metoo movement, doesn’t need to mean the end of office romances.
“It needs to be a catalyst for employers to think about what they don’t want happening in their workplaces that will cause people to feel uncomfortable and not wanting to show up at work.” Fedldblum says.
Some employers ignore office romances. Some completely ban them. Banning intra-office romances can wind up backfiring by creating a culture of secrecy.
“This is an extreme and draconian approach, which may not actually promote the type of behavior that the company is looking for by driving the behavior underground,” warns Mirande Valbrune, an employee relations and compliance professional with an employment law background.
Other companies discourage or ban romances between supervisors and the workers who report to them. Yet another approach suggests disclosing relationships to HR to ensure they’re truly consensual.
“I have taken a slightly different approach when setting policy at my companies, by discouraging the behavior (without prohibition) amongst co-workers, and requiring disclosure to the company by any employees in a hierarchical reporting relationship.”
Law professor Steele says that might sound like a buzzkill. But consider the consequences of an ugly work breakup. Perhaps one party continues to pursue the relationship — that might start to feel like harassment. Or say a supervisor ends things with an employee:
“And almost as a revenge measure — for lack of a better term — for being dumped, then the one who did not want out now claims that the entire office romance was sexual harassment and now claims that it was indeed unwelcome,” Steele says.
Building an Atmosphere of Respect and Fairness
Alyssa Kovach, an employment lawyer and an associate at Duane Morris, based in Philadelphia, said that in the last several months, she’s heard from more clients than ever before who are seeking advice reevaluating their sexual harassment policies.
“I think everyone just wants to make sure they have a policy in place that meets the legal standard in this new era, where there’s really sort of a limelight on sexual harassment.”
For harassment to violate federal standards, it must be “severe or pervasive.” What employers should do is establish a sexual harassment policy that goes beyond the legal definition.
Company policies should also cover consensual romantic relationships, expressly prohibiting relationships in a chain of command where on person has direct authority over the other,” said Michael G. Trachtman, president of the Powell Trahtman law firm in King of Prussia.
That, he said, is “horribly dangerous” and should be distinguished “from a workplace relationship among people in different departments or not in any sort of supervisory relationship.” If a consensual relationship between two people in a chain of command develops, Trachtman said, many companies will work with those individuals to transfer one person elsewhere, if possible.
Employers must not just write a policy, they must role it out companywide with clear expectations of acceptable behavior. For example, take a guy who asks out his co-worker four times and gets told no repeatedly.
Feldblum says that might not rise to the legal level of harassment. But she says maybe now is a good time for employers to consider changing not what people think is appropriate but how they behave at work.
“So a man can continue to believe that a good dating strategy is to ask someone four times because maybe she’s just playing hard to get,” Feldblum says. “That person can continue to believe that’s a good dating strategy — but not in a workplace.”
Feldblum says employers might consider making clear that such behavior at work is unacceptable — preventively. That applies between men and women or anyone else.
Generally, says Feldblum, women understand the difference between flirtation and harassment.
“The main thing this cultural and social moment of talking about sexual harassment should give us is that men should begin to understand this as well,” she says.
Listening to each other, making sure we’re on the same page, might not be shutting workplace flirtations down — but making them work a whole lot better.