A Publication of WTVP

During the month of February, our thoughts are turned toward matters of the heart. In the workplace, these thoughts-and policies about them-can create ethical dilemmas. How can we deal fairly and effectively when love enters the workplace?

In a more innocent time, relationships and romances in the workplace were accepted. A young man or woman might find the ideal life partner in a co-worker. After all, they likely would share common interests and experiences and spend time together in the same workplace. Some of you reading this column might have had a workplace relationship that blossomed into a lifelong marriage.

Some relationships didn't have such happy endings. Sometimes the relationships faltered for a variety of reasons-or no reason at all. Sometimes the relationships involved adultery by one of the parties. When relationships failed, there often were consequences, particularly if one of the parties had supervisory authority over the other. People were demoted or fired-or a worker could blackmail a supervisor for better pay or advancement.

In any case, the results could be very unhealthy for the people involved because, often, there were many more in the know about the romance than just the two parties. How much workplace time has been spent dealing with gossip and bad behavior because of failed romance? In the case of one client I served, an illicit romance was going on, and the aggrieved spouse of one of the parties created a scene at the workplace when confronting the couple in front of co-workers and other clients.

Interestingly, the story surfaced when I came to the workplace to do a sexual harassment prevention seminar. The litigation surrounding allegations of sexual harassment has created a difficult atmosphere today for workplace relationships. Some employers-and often their insurers-prohibit relationships in the workplace because of the risk of a sexual harassment claim if one of the parties cools or ends the relationship.

Not that sexual harassment prevention is a bad thing. Some of the workplace relationships and romances in other generations were coerced, and often there were consequences if the relationships didn't work out. Love turned into power over others, and there could be situations where careers and lives were damaged beyond repair because of a vindictive worker or manager. Preventing sexual harassment, establishing clear boundaries and expectations, and cultivating professional relationships between men and women-or between people of the same gender-are positive moves for employers.

Some, however, complain of the "workplace police." When I've done sexual harassment prevention seminars or employee handbook projects, I inevitably face the following question: How can an employer legislate how people behave with one another, especially outside of the workplace and after hours? After all, they reason, we're all adults, and we know what can happen when we move beyond fraternizing with our co-workers.

Yet reason disappears when passion and hormones ignite, and the decisions we make to become intimate with co-workers can have a negative impact on work performance. We have to wonder, however, what will happen when angry workers file lawsuits claiming violation of the right of free association, especially outside of the workplace and working hours.

So how can managers navigate through the thicket or romantic relationships in the workplace? How can they balance the personal rights people have with protection of workers from the negative consequences of personal choices? How can managers protect their employer from sexual harassment claims arising from love lost or lust expended?

There are two approaches that seem to work, though it's important to note they aren't fail-safe. First, provide clear disclosure of the expectations of professional behavior in the workplace. How about this statement: "While we recognize that workers have their own lives, they must remember that friendships or relationships with co-workers are always subordinate to their responsibility to handle themselves professionally at work and to demonstrate the highest standards of performance in their work. Relationships must not interfere at any time with work performance." The same kind of statement can apply to relationships with vendors as well.

Then, provide clear training in sexual harassment. Employees and managers need to know the definitions of inappropriate sexual behavior or the misuse of implied or actual sexual intimacy between workers-to gain power over others, for example. In other words, if employees fall in love with one another, and that love cools, neither party should use their grief or anger to get back at the other with a harassment claim or use a supervisory role to get back at a worker who no longer wants a relationship. In this case, there's implied consent between the parties.

Even then, there can be serious problems. No management approach is foolproof when dealing with workplace relationships or romance. While workplace romances can have a fairy-tale quality, there have been enough failures in the happily-ever-after part of the story to cause employers to exercise caution. And, in any case, work has to get done. That's the bottom line. IBI