Office romances can have serious career consequences. 'One is very crazy in love' - but perhaps even more so when getting out of love.
Romantic love is always an engaging topic, and especially so when it comes to the workplace context. Dating a coworker is an exciting yet a risky idea. If things go well, it can lead to increased well-being and harmony in one’s personal and professional life. However, if the relationship turns sour, it can seriously jeopardize one’s career and future in the firm.
There are several reasons why organizational researchers are interested in studying workplace romance. Firstly, such relationships affect individual, group, and organizational behaviors and outcomes. Secondly, there is much interest in trying to find the antecedents (i.e., the causes) of office romance –what conditions of the workplace intensify such relationships. Researchers have also spent considerable resources in figuring out what kinds of office relationships would last successfully and under what conditions can these backfire and lead to legal battles within organizations. And in all this, one question of primary interest is its effect on workplace productivity.
The commonness of office romances won’t come as a surprise to anyone. According to different estimates, 38-40% of employees have reported having a workplace romance at least once during their career. In another estimate from a study conducted in 2013, 17% have dated more than one coworker and 31% of office relationships have led to marriages. The study also finds that people in certain industries are more likely to lead to an office romance than in other sectors.
The antecedents of interpersonal attraction are well established. Proximity, both in terms of simple geographic closeness (e.g., whether coworkers work in the same office or if their work desks are close to each other) and functional proximity (e.g., how easy it is for an interaction to occur) are positively related to attraction. Then factors like the proportion of men and women in the work setting and the degree of contact between them are important. In jobs where there is high task interdependence – for example, where team work is required – there has been high rate of participation in a workplace romance.
While several companies are against having couples work in the same office or in the same team, some others actually accept it happily. Southwest Airlines is a classic example that promotes couples working together because of their belief that doing so successfully helps in creating a healthy work environment. Working in the same domain, office, or organization can help develop a better understanding of each other’s situations. Going through the ups and downs and the stresses related to corporate life together can help increase that bond created between the working couples. Working together can also help make life easier for the couples by allowing them to coordinate their other responsibilities. In sum, companies trying to create a ‘we are a family’ culture can actually do so by having the family members work together.
However, workplace relationships remain controversial because the risks can outweigh the benefits easily. Most individuals are still extremely secretive about it – from one estimate, 37% of employees that dated admitted to hiding their relationship from coworkers. Being involved in office romances can be viewed as being unprofessional and contributing to a bad work environment involving gossip, distractions, favoritism, and conflict of interest. Moreover, whether the relationship is at the same job level or across hierarchies complicates the situation further. Being at the same job level can create unhealthy competition between the partners. On the other hand, the boss-subordinate relationship at work alongside a personal romantic relationship out of office is a dangerous mix.
One danger than lurks around is the swiftness with which such workplace romances turn to accusations of sexual harassment, especially so with across hierarchy relationships. Professors Charles Pierce and Herman Aguinis studied the processes through which dissolved workplace romances were most likely to foster sexually harassing behavior between former romantic partners. Factors such as partners’ position of power, residual emotions involved, and organization’s tolerance to harassment were found to have significant effects. The frequent media stories of cases of sexual harassment and the ensuing legal battles are good reminders of such dangers.
Office romances can have career consequences. They have the power to bring energy, motivation, and encouragement by improving team work, communication, and cooperation. At the same time, it can quickly deteriorate the professional work environment. Serious ethical concerns can arise if things turn ugly and consequently damage the company’s and individuals’ reputation. Companies need to have clear thoughtful guidelines on dealing with this issue. After all, as Sigmund Freud had said “One is very crazy in love” - perhaps even more so while getting out of love.