How do you handle the thorny issue of workplace relationships?

Two things inspired this article. One was reading a take on it by my good friend Al Levi, who writes for Plumbing & Mechanical magazine. Al discusses his father’s absolute prohibition against his sons dating the hired help in their family business. You can read his article (“Love Connection …The Office Romance”) on-line at

As for the second reason to write about this subject, I don’t often find an excuse to work the word “sex” into a headline. Readership is about to get a boost, book it!

No more joking. This is a serious subject. You’re all aware of the sensitivities over sexual harassment, which have spawned an entire industry of lawsuits and training classes. I’m completely in agreement with laws to protect vulnerable people (mostly women) from being exploited by persons in positions of authority.

Yet, sometimes there seems to be a fine line distinguishing sexual harassment from innocent flirting and courtship. Countless lawyers and consultants earn handsome livings trying to interpret where that line gets drawn, and I’ll not intrude on their turf. What I’m more concerned about is achieving balance with company policies that abide by all the legalities pertaining to sexual harassment, while respecting the privacy of co-workers who succumb to the same temptations as the birds and the bees.

How do you accommodate the latter, while still guarding against potential charges of sexual harassment? Especially problematic is when a relationship involves a supervisor and subordinate, and even more so when it’s the company owner. Given all the damage potential, some companies have reacted with no-way, no-how policies against employees dating.

Arguing against that is the inability of human nature to resist Cupid’s arrow, plus a rather convincing (to me) libertarian point of view that it’s none of anyone’s business if two consenting adults fall for each other. Most of the business world seems to agree. A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Romance Survey found that 72 percent of companies do not even have a formal, written, romance policy, while only 13 percent do. The other 14 percent replied that they have “an unwritten, but well understood, norm in their workplace,” whatever that means. My interpretation: Be discreet.

When you think about it, a workplace offers one of the best environments for interpersonal chemical bonds to form – far better than bars, the Internet or most other places people go looking for mates. Working with another person hour after hour, day after day offers plenty of opportunity to really get to know someone. Prohibiting romance under such circumstances is like trying to stop the wind from blowing. According to a Glamour magazine survey, 41 percent of employed Americans between the ages of 25-40 have admitted to engaging in an office romance.

Employers, of course, have a right to expect that relationships between employees not intrude on the conduct of business. Yet it’s not altogether clear that job performance suffers when co-workers get entangled. Some studies have reported a higher level of productivity in dating couples at work, probably due to enhanced harmony and teamwork. When problems arise, they tend to stem from other co-workers.

Sometimes a couple may not make much effort to hide the hots for each other. Flirtatious behavior can make some co-workers uncomfortable and lead to resentment, gossip and rumors that become a bigger problem than the relationship sparking them. Even when a couple tries to disguise their relationship, other employees often sense something is going on. Workplace affairs have a way of becoming common knowledge, especially in small companies. Jealousies may come into play, and if one party to a relationship supervises the other, a perception of favoritism is inevitable.

The situation gets much more complicated if one or both parties already are married or in a committed relationship. Then you have to worry not only about the impact on job performance and morale, but fallout from broken marriages/relationships. In extreme cases, it can become a security concern worrying about potential havoc from disgruntled spouses or lovers.

Another tricky situation may arise if a workplace romance involves gay or lesbian couples. This can be quite a shock to the sensibilities of old-school construction veterans in an industry like yours. But whether or not you subscribe to modern social mores, from a business perspective, you need to apply the same policies to heterosexual and homosexual affairs, or you could find yourself caught up in a discrimination lawsuit.

The most problematic scenario for a workplace romance is when one of the parties is the boss. Company owners may be vulnerable to charges of sexual harassment even when a relationship is completely consensual. Everything’s fine as long as a couple remains lovey-dovey, but when a relationship turns sour, the one with the upper hand could end up explaining things to a judge or jury. Some judges have taken an extremely loose view of the concept of coercion when one party holds so much power over another’s livelihood, no matter how willing the “victim” may have been.

So how do you deal with all these complexities?

Most companies don’t prohibit employee dating altogether, but provide guidelines. These might include prohibiting outward signs of affection, maintaining a professional demeanor and avoiding discussion of the relationship with co-workers and customers. In other words, don’t ask, don’t tell.

Even when companies are OK with workplace romances in general, many draw the line when it involves supervisors and subordinates. A typical policy is that if a relationship develops, it’s up to the supervisor to report it so the employer can switch one of their jobs and reduce interaction between the two as much as possible. Of course, this is much easier to accomplish in a large company with multiple departments than in small businesses employing just a handful of people. On the other hand, a small business might be better able to accommodate lovebirds working together, simply because there aren’t many other co-workers around to get upset over the situation.

No matter how gingerly you treat this issue, minefields pop up. The largest powder kegs can be found at both the beginning and the end of a relationship. That’s when real or contrived episodes of sexual harassment are likely to rear their head.

Sexual harassment is simple to define and recognize at its extreme. Any decent person is disgusted at the thought of someone in a position of authority demanding or even hinting at sexual favors as a condition of employment or advancement. Most of us also can readily detect a hostile working environment where a sexually charged atmosphere would make women (mostly) feel uncomfortable or threatened. Numerous court rulings have made it clear that employers have a responsibility not to tolerate these conditions, and most have gotten the message.

However, more subtle cases abound that are not so easy to address. A co-worker might ask another employee out on a date and be rejected. In most cases, out of politeness, the rejection won’t be expressed as “absolutely not” but, “Sorry, I’m completely tied up this week.” How many times does a suitor need to hear this before it crosses the boundary between courtship and harassment? How do you decide who’s right when there are no supporting witnesses in he said/she said accusations?

At the other end, most relationships do not last forever, and breakups are not always friendly. Aggrieved lovers have been known to seek revenge in the courts even if they were fully complicit in an affair. Behavior and comments that may have resulted in giggles between people getting it on takes on different meaning after they hit the skids. Even without litigation, busted relationships can lead to a decidedly tense workplace.

Now let’s end this essay on the upbeat. In the SHRM survey cited earlier, 55 percent of the HR professionals responding said that marriage is the most likely outcome of the office romances they have experienced.

That sounds about right. In my four-decades-long working career, I’ve witnessed quite a few office romances, and can recall more happy endings than disruptive dalliances. Even those dicey relationships between bosses and subordinates sometimes work out for the best, as was the case with the apparently happy marriage between Bill Gates and former Microsoft employee Melinda.

Sensible people usually find a way to make things work out for the best. Work on hiring sensible people, and you’ll have less to worry about when they become infatuated with one another.