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Editorial Team
15 Jan 2019

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To Office, with Love: Who decides when ‘Personal’ is at Crossroads with ‘Professional’?

Employee's appreciation of romance comes at expense of risk-fraught experiences for organizations. Need not to be. 

Kindling of romance between employees is embroiled in a mesh of legal entanglements. When cupid comes calling and office becomes romance’s ground zero, when flowers shower from heaven and music starts playing without any violinist being paid for- it’s time you (You: The anti-hero of a perfect love story aka the human resources professionals) are ready with your arsenal of contracts, notaries, and legal advisories. 

It’s difficult to say when a platonic relationship is turning into romantic. Annual CareerBuilder Valentine’s Day Survey affirms 41% employees dated their co-worker which is the highest since 2007, 19% affairs involved married people, and 38% employees agreed to keep their love relationships a secret.  There are different factors leading to an office romance. It’s quite inevitable animated by close proximity and long working hours. Add to the boiling cauldron, the age of working populace which is mostly millennials and single and leads a fast-paced and breathless life and you have a ready-made recipe for sparks flying out of control.    

The Chemical Cocktail and Its Side-effects

Before first sight crosses three stages of lust, attraction, and attachment to become love and before employees actually say ‘I do’, organizations and HR practitioners have to jump in to make sure it doesn’t go awry. When a relationship between a subordinate and superior makes them red in love, co-workers turn green with envy insinuating favoritism. It leads to reduced productivity and lowered employee morale. Earlier, organizations dealt romances with a heavy hand but this draconian policy does not pass their muster today.   

While favoritism emanating from paralleled kinship and nepotism is handcuffed by laws and easy to put into a litmus test, how do you funnel inundation of love reactions? Even biological anthropologist Helen Fisher wasn’t able to define overtime working of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin but she confesses love is as toxic as taking cocaine. Natural drug overdose on an irresistible chemical cocktail, huh? Not even under the purview of superior law of the land.  

Cupid turning into Machiavelli 

Dollars to doughnuts, before you know it romance crosses the threshold of a forbidden romantic relationship to sexual harassment allegations. Organizations are vulnerable to exposure and lawsuits when romances go murky or voice claiming favoritism become shrill.  Suddenly, an organization finds itself dragged under the jurisprudence of US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Consensual liaisons can easily consummate into a bone of contention for organizations and employees and can lead to tightening of the legal noose for both parties. The jurisdiction of hostile work environment liability brings contentious skeletons tumbling out of the closet. Examples galore from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Matt Lauer who have been dumped to depths of disappointment and professional demise. 

The HR Repartee:

There are two things which can be done when cupid decides to strike the employees working in your organizations:  

  • Either- Stop them

The expected conduct inside the workplace and while on free-time inside the workplace (like lunch-breaks) must be made known to the employees. Not to mention, the limits of physical contact and the use of language. Offsite work engagements like meetings and hotel stays must follow professional itineraries. Even if employees are seeing each other, they must sign disclosures or ‘love contracts’ to avoid future allegations of any sort.  

The Loophole? 

Dr. Nikki Goldstein, a sexologist and subject matter specialist, says- romance is no moot point with so much to juggle in personal and professional lives. But differentiating between the two lives each individual lives and keeping them separated widely is crucial for employees. A point emphasized massively by Michelle Gibbings, the author of Step up: How to Build Your Influence at Work.  

  • Or- Encourage them:

If you can’t stop them, encourage them. What? Yes, you heard it right! Encourage them. What seems like an experience meant for doom can build affinity and esprit de corps for organizations?  Couple-friendly organizations are consciously seeking spouses because they can easily understand the work culture and the pressures involved. The spouses share transportation costs and holidays and can easily maintain a work-life balance. Companies like Wipro are offering cars and honeymoon packages as gifts. The presence of some riders for spouses like no common departments to avoid nepotism and favoritism claims ensure an absence of scruples for companies.      

The employees need to understand the aftermath of fraternizing. They can give their rose-tinted feelings a touch of transparency and knowledge by bringing in confidence the HR managers, who can help walk the tightrope with ease. Moreover, sticking by the golden rules of maintaining office decorum, avoiding PDA (Public Display of Affection), and keeping domestic tensions at bay always help in maintaining appurtenances of professionalism.  

When personal crosses professional realms method of marginalization and elimination of employees increasingly deemed to be oppositional to the organization’s interests isn’t the way out. Strict complaint procedure, distribution plan, sexual harassment panel for coercive and corrective actions, and laws (free of legal jargons) laying down explanatory examples of conducts inviting dismissals, is.  

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