Workplace Romances: How should you respond?

It will happen. Figure out your ‘stance’ on this in advance

You may already know this, but there are approximately 2.3 million cattle in the Irish beef herd and about 1.7 million dairy cows.  So, if you live in Ireland, there’s a really good chance that you will (at some point in your life) have seen a cow. No big deal. Based on my experience – I would argue that there’s an even better chance that you will have experienced a workplace romance. And, this is a big deal.

Not New: When Ruth Meehan completed a Masters in DCU, she choose an interesting topic – workplace romances. I had the privilege of reading her thesis. Turns out that this issue has been perplexing organisations, participants and co-workers for millennia. Parking morality, legal issues (e.g. sexual harassment claims), organisational justice (equality, colleagues perceptions of fairness, favouritism) and productivity (distraction from responsibilities) all come into play. Yet, despite the dilemmas posed, workplace romances seem to be on the increase. One comprehensive U.S. Survey found that approximately 40% of people had engaged in a workplace romance, while U.K. research highlighted that more than 70% of survey participants had a similar experience (to the best of my knowledge, no similar survey data exists in Ireland; we can only guess the numbers). One thing is for sure – the phenomenon of workplace romance is not going away anytime soon.

Influencing Forces: A number of social, economic and cultural factors influence this. The increased number of women in the workforce; blurring of male/female stereotyped roles; longer working hours; changing societal norms whereby sexual activity/behaviour is more widely accepted outside of the traditional partnership/marriage model. But, what ‘triggers’ this? Why do people look over that office divider and mentally say maybe? It turns out that there are a number of potential motives for getting involved with someone at work:

Love: Sincere/true love, companionship, seeking a spouse/long-term partner. With more people spending more time at work, it’s not that surprising that people use the office or the factory as their primary ‘hunting ground.’

Ego: Seeking excitement, adventure, sexual experience and ego satisfaction. Life can be a bit boring. Unless, of course, you are in the middle of an office romance! Turns out that finding a good place to hide a 2nd mobile phone isn’t boring at all!

Job: Seeking advancement/progression, job security, increased influence, financial rewards, easier work. Sometimes referred to as ‘Sleeping to Success.’

Staying Stum: Understandably, most participants try to keep workplace romances private, but many fail. One researcher (Mainiero), supporting the premise that participants are reluctant to make their relationship public, argues that the decision to maintain secrecy may not be discretionary. A violation of workplace norms regarding appropriate distance or intimacy often provides indications to co-workers of a deviance (Robinson & Bennett, 1995) from the ‘normal’ professional relationship. Co-workers are often highly sensitive to even the slightest change in behaviour. When I worked for General Electric, one senior Executive from the USA had an affair with a secretary in Dublin. He was married. She was single. He was mid 40’s. She was in her early 20’s (while I normally do some research for this Blog, in this specific case I didn’t actually check their Birth Certificates). How did we know they were having an affair? In the canteen, the Executive used to take off his shoes and rub his stockinged feet up along her leg under the table. Given that the canteen was normally packed with people during the break times, we didn’t need a Doctorate in Psychology to figure that one out.  Another couple (they were both married to other people) arrived into work each day in the same car.  Horray for car pooling? Well, perhaps, if they lived in the same area. One of them commuted from North County Dublin and the other one lived in Blackrock (South Dublin).  Like all managerial behaviour, the standard caveat applies. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t like to see reported on the front page of the Irish Times. It’s a tough hurdle to meet at all time.

Relationship Fallout: There have been a number of ‘high profile’ cases in Ireland around workplace romances. It’s important here to distinguish between workplace romances and sexual harassment – albeit there might be a thin line between both – depending on the respective positions held by both parties. In one well publicized case, the CEO of a major utility was fired for sexual harassment of a subordinate. Because of his role, his ‘employability’ in Ireland was compromised and he was advised to seek work overseas (which he did). Most affairs are easy to start but more difficult to end – so there’s a lot of caution needed at the Christmas Party (and every other time of the year too).  While being attracted to someone is fundamentally human, it can carry a high price tag.

Organization Tolerance: Some organizations are more tolerant of this than others. For example, some years ago I visited 2 Jesuit Universities in the US to meet their senior teams during a project I was working on at that time. On the flight home, trying to make sense of a million pages of notes, one theme stood out above everything else; ‘moral turpitude.’ Having an affair with a junior member of staff or any contact with students was an instantly dismissible offence in both organizations.  Contrast that stance with a closer to home example. I met a HR Director who worked with a large multinational.  It was well known internally that the Managing Director was having an affair with his PA and with the Marketing Manager (at the same time). He’d also had a fling with a Polish office cleaner (note to self: ‘buy more Red Bull’). The HR Manager (whom I was coaching) was concerned that during the ‘rollout’ of a Corporate Values Programme, this behaviour would tarnish the company reputation. He asked: “What should I do?” After batting the issue back and forth a number of times, we came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to confront the MD with the contradictions between the ‘espoused values’ of the organization (dignity/respect for people and so on) and his personal behaviour. I didn’t attend the meeting but was reliably told that his response to the HR Manager was as follows: “You should try to get out and about a bit more yourself.”  He did – visiting headhunters to look for a new job.

Counterproductive Workplace Behaviours: Spector and Fox (2002) list a range of potentially destructive and detrimental acts that hurt colleagues and organizations. Aggression, hostility, theft, sabotage and so on seem to push ‘having a fling’ well down the totem pole of offences. But it depends on the organization context.  Without being moralistic, some good advice is as follows.  If you are of a mind to have an office romance, make sure it’s with someone from another office. There’s too much riding on this!


PS Lighter Notes: Let’s stay with the theme…

Golf Balls: A woman was tidying her husband’s dresser when she found 3 golf balls and a box with $2000 in it. She waited for him to come home from the golf course to ask him why these things were hidden in his drawer.

The husband said:  “I’m sorry I hid this from you but the truth is every time I cheated on you over the last 30 years I put a golf ball in the drawer.”

The wife was very upset at first but after thinking about it said: “I suppose 3 times in 30 years is really not that bad! Oh by the way what’s the $2000 for?”

The husband replied: “Every time I got a dozen balls I sold them.”

Pearly Gates: It got crowded in heaven. So, for one day only it was decided to accept people who had had a really bad day on the day they died. St. Peter was standing at the gates and said to the first man: “Tell me about the day you died.”

The man said, “Oh, it was awful. I was sure my wife was having an affair, so I came home early to catch her. I searched all over the apartment but couldn’t find him anywhere. So I went out onto the balcony, we live on the 25th floor, and found this man hanging over the edge by his fingertips. I went inside, got a hammer, and started hitting his hands. He fell, but landed in some bushes. So, I got the refrigerator and pushed it over the balcony and it crushed him. The strain of the act gave me a heart attack, and I died.”

St. Peter couldn’t deny that this was a pretty bad day. Since it was a crime of passion, he let the man in. He then asked the next man in line about the day he died.

“Well, Sir, it was awful,” said the second man. “I was doing aerobics on the balcony of my 26th floor apartment when I twisted my ankle and slipped over the edge. I managed to grab the balcony of the apartment below, but some maniac came out and started pounding on my fingers with a hammer. Luckily I landed in some bushes. But, then the guy dropped a refrigerator on me!”

St. Peter chuckled, let him into heaven and decided he was really starting to enjoy this interviewing job.

“Tell me about the day you died?” he said to the third man in line.

“OK, picture this. You are naked and hiding inside a refrigerator…”

Night Out: “Last night a Hypnotist convinced me that I was a soft, malleable metal with an Atomic number of eighty-two.  I’m easily lead”

Doctor:  “Mrs A, let’s have a look at your results!”

Patient:  “Excuse Me! My name isn’t Mrs A”

Doctor:  “OK, I have some bad news then. You have MRSA”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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