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Love in the air? Breathe it with caution at work 

By Neil Amato and Ken Tysiac 
February 14 2014

Workplace romance can have a happy ending. Who doesn’t know someone who met the love of his or her life at the office?

But plenty of office relationships have ended on sour notes – for both the couple and the organisation. That’s why HR professionals seem to be keeping a closer eye on workers who suddenly have eyes for each other.

Formal policies about on-the-job romance, while absent at many organisations, are increasingly being put in place, and the concerns are numerous, even when a relationship that starts in the office leads to marriage.

Favouritism, real or perceived, is a top concern, according to research by HR organisations in the UK and US. So is the possibility of a sexual harassment claim or an attempt at retaliation by a jilted worker. And employees spending time together outside work might end up disclosing privileged or confidential information. The effects – dragging down morale and productivity, to name two – can be department- or even company-wide.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed 384 members in the US and found that 42% of their companies had verbal or written policies about workplace relationships, up from 25% in 2005 and 20% in 2001. Concerns led to most employers prohibiting some workplace relationships, such as those between a supervisor and the supervisor’s direct report.

“With workplace romance an inevitable part of any work environment, HR professionals need to prepare for issues related to managing its impact,” Evren Esen, manager of SHRM’s Survey Research Center, said in a news release. “Potential risks range from damage to office morale to legal claims.”

Formal policies were less prevalent in the UK, according to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). That survey, of 556 HR professionals, showed that 20% of respondents said their companies had formal policies regarding workplace relationships. Additionally, the CIPD survey found that 55% of HR professionals had been in workplace relationships themselves and that most (83%) believe organisations should not ban workplace relationships.

Other findings from the SHRM survey:

  • Thirty-two per cent of respondents say employers have the right to prohibit workplace romance between employees, 18% say they don’t have the right, and 49% say that sort of prohibition should depend on the circumstances.
  • Thirty-four per cent of the time, employees – regardless of rank – found to be in workplace relationships were issued no consequences. When consequences were issued, transfer to another department was most popular (34%), followed by counselling (32%), a formal, written reprimand (21%) and termination (20%). Respondents could pick more than one consequence.
  • When a supervisor and his or her direct report are found to have violated the company’s policy about workplace relationships, the top consequences for the supervisor are counselling (48%), written reprimand (44%), termination (41%), and transfer to another department (40%).
  • A strong majority (95%) of respondents said their organisations do not require employees to sign a “love contract,” which is defined in the survey as “a document affirming that a workplace romantic relationship is consensual, that employees involved will not engage in favouritism, and that neither will take any legal action against the employer or each other if the relationship ends.”

“It’s not just how you behave”

Catherine Horn, CPA, CGMA, a human resources director and global HR partner for technology company Alcatel-Lucent, said her company handles office romance issues through its code of conduct in an indirect fashion.

The code does not specifically mention office romances, but it establishes that employees need to maintain the highest level of business ethics and personal integrity. Based on that policy, Horn said, the company does not allow romantic relationships between employees whose reporting structure gives one of them responsibilities to the other related to supervising, hiring or firing, assigning work or administering salary or bonuses.

“We discourage it,” Horn said. “And we find ways to reassign people or to change the reporting structure so it [the relationship] doesn’t interfere with the workplace.”

Employees’ complaints about office romances can be reported anonymously through a company compliance hotline administered by a third-party vendor. Horn said employees should avoid situations where there’s a chance of even a perception of impropriety.

“It’s not just how you behave, it goes beyond that to how you are perceived to behave,” she said. “… It’s about perception. If someone can perceive that it’s possible for something wrong to happen, you should stay away from it.”

Related CGMA Magazine content:

How to Short-Circuit Negativity, Keep Morale High”: Poor communication is the factor that causes the greatest harm to workplace morale, according to a new survey of human resources professionals. Read about more threats to workplace morale and how to keep negativity from seeping into the workplace.

Neil Amato (namato@aicpa.org) and Ken Tysiac (ktysiac@aicpa.org) are CGMA Magazine senior editors.

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