Ask Rex Huppke: I Just Work Here
February 12, 2012
Love is in the air.
Either that or Dan over in accounting went a little nutso with the Axe Body Spray this morning.
Regardless, in the spirit of Valentine's Day and shameless column hooks, let's talk about office romances, the perils of workplace flirtation and the fact that this T-shirt really highlights my abs. (NOTE TO MY BOSSES: If you comment on my abs, I'll sue you faster than you can say "magnificent.")
First is the simple question: Is it ever a good idea to become romantically involved with a co-worker?
The answer is clearly no, but that doesn't matter because we're silly humans who routinely do things that aren't in our best interests, like smoking, voting for Ralph Nader and allowing Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to star in movies.
Love will bloom where it will, but in the workplace it has to be (I can't believe I'm about to type this) managed.
"The adverse impacts of work romances are multiple," said Kevin Sheridan, senior vice president of Avatar HR Solutions Inc. "They can have a detrimental effect on employee engagement; they can lead to perceptions of preferential treatment. They can also inflate workplace gossip and detract from productivity, and also eat up time from the couple because they're chatting or spending nonworking time together during office hours."
And if that's not enough, the anti-Cupid continued: "Some of the other bad outcomes that can result are accusations of favoritism or problems if, God forbid, the relationship ends on a bad note. The coup de grace is if the relationship ends and one of the people decides they feel they were sexually harassed or makes allegations that they were coerced into the relationship or promised a promotion if they had an amorous relationship. Those are very, very real risks."
Love is a many splendored gateway to litigation.
This brings us back to the question of why people allow themselves to get swept up in what are inherently risky romances. (Anyone interested in optioning my screenplay, "Inherently Risky Romances," please email ASAP.)
Let's see if science has any answers.
According to Mark Kristal, director of the behavioral neuroscience graduate program at the University of Buffalo, the reasons humans fall in love remain confusing.
"It's not a well-planned event; it's not something you can re-create in the laboratory," Kristal said. "Love at first sight has more to do with an all-encompassing type of phenomenon. It involves social and cognitive aspects of what's going on. Lust is OK for what it is, but it doesn't seem to have the power of love at first site, the thunderbolt kind of thing."
Sheridan, who is also the author of "Building a Magnetic Culture," said he believes one trigger for inadvisable office romances is boredom.
"I think there are a lot of people who are literally bored at their job," he said. "They're spending eight hours a day in their job, and they might inadvertently look to spice things up by getting into some kind of relationship, even if it's not a good idea."
So work on keeping your employees engaged and focused on their careers. Sheridan suggests making sure workers feel appreciated; having regular dialogue with employees about their career development; and forging good and, hopefully platonic, relationships between managers and employees, ones built on trust.
And accept the fact that people are still going to flirt and fall for one another.
"I think the smart employers are recognizing that if they establish formal policies that prohibit workplace relationships, that's often viewed as being very intrusive," Sheridan said. "Most companies that have tried to institute a workplace romance policy, the reality is it's very difficult to enforce. The only policy that can be enforced is that that relationship can't exist between a manager and someone who reports to that manager."
Gregory Bulgrin, an attorney with the national labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips, said he recommends companies implement "love contracts." (Nothing more romantic than the word "contract.")
"A love contract is basically a way that the employer can have some protection against potential liability, as well try to minimize the practical business problem of having one person being offended by public displays of affection or tons of flowers and candy coming into the office," Bulgrin said. "It's a way to ... make sure that if there is a relationship in the office, that couple understand that the office is a professional space."
A love contract would clearly state a company's sexual harassment policies and include a clause that makes it clear that the relationship was entered into without coercion.
"It tries to set the boundaries of professional and personal relationships," Bulgrin said. "And it acts as a defense to any future allegations."
This all sounds a bit stuffy, but it provides protection for the workers as well as the company. No matter how wonderful love may be, things can fall apart, sometimes in ugly fashion.
Love contract or not, I would advise any office couple to be upfront with management about the relationship. Mixing love and work can be a tangled enough web; you don't need to add a strand of dishonesty.
The great 20th century poet Pat Benatar once said: "Love is a battlefield." Before letting your heart intertwine with your work world, keep those words in mind.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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