How Should Managers Handle Office Romances?

Managers can’t control where love happens
Managers can’t control where love happens
Image Credit: j-No

It goes without saying that the #metoo movement has resulted in the downfall of many formally powerful men: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer. Clearly there were a lot of very bad things going on in the entertainment industry. As managers we need to understand what the impact of all of this is going to be on our work environments. Is it going to result in tougher polices towards office romances or changed attitudes? What’s a manager to do?

What Does All Of This Mean For Office Romance?

As managers let’s start things off by agreeing on one thing. If we make any attempt to banish office romance at work it is guaranteed to fail. Work is where most of us spend the majority of our time and so it is only natural that this is the place where we are going to find our lovers, partners and spouses. The challenge that this poses for us as managers is that we need to admit that the modern workplace is one in which romantic overtures are not always unwelcome. For managers this brings up the big question: when, if ever, is romantic interaction appropriate at work?

So how big of a deal is this office romance thing? In a recent survey of 500 workers, the results showed that 27% identified work as a place where they would meet partners. This is in comparison to only 20% who said that they used dating apps. What was interesting about the survey is that it revealed that millennials were more likely than older workers (33%) to view the office as a place to find a date. Other surveys have revealed that 20% of the people taking the survey had met their spouse or partner while at work. The problem with this is that office romances have now become trickier because we are now living in an age of heightened sensitivity to harassment and discrimination. Even workplace romances that end up having a happy ending can at times appear to be just one step away from becoming a sexual harassment horror story.

So a huge question that managers need to find an answer to is what is the difference between enjoyable workplace flirting and humiliating behavior? The experts agree that flirtation is mutual. Innuendo is one-way. To managers this distinction may at first seem obvious. However, things can become less clear when a person who is in a less powerful position ends up just playing along in order to keep a person who is in a more powerful position happy. Even workplace relationships that are at the time fully consensual can later on end up being reinterpreted as workplace abuse for a number of different reasons. The reasons can include a relationship that has gone bad or troubles at work. The courts have clearly stated that women can successful sue a company for sexual harassment even if at time she participated in or started raunchy behavior.

Office Romance Going Forward

One of the problems that managers face in dealing with office romances is that in the 1990s, things were taken just a bit too far. People were being punished for office behavior that most people thought was inoffensive. The result of this was that people started to believe that the rules regarding sexual harassment in the workplace were a double standard – protecting women and punishing men. The result of this was that a backlash was created that made it difficult to attempt to solve the core problem. Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a real problem.

A recent survey revealed that 48% of the women who were surveyed said that they had personally experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The good news is that extreme forms of sexual harassment are relatively rare. Only 1% of survey respondents said that they had been pressured to have sex. Jokes, comments, and gestures seem to make up the rest.

Managers have to be aware of the type of conduct that is going on in their office. The lessor forms of sexual harassment are not necessarily less important. It can be difficult to determine when these situations have risen to create a toxic workplace. One of the most dangerous situations is when a person who has a position of power is being inappropriate with a subordinate. What managers need to make sure is that a hostile work environment has not been created.

Managers need to realize that in the workplace, all interactions are not the same. It’s going to be important going forward to be able to use our judgment in order to separate males who are just awkward in their interactions with women from males who make use of their power to intimidate. Attempting to create formal rules is the wrong thing to try to do. A much better approach is to create a workplace that has strong lines of communication and become part of a management team that is responsive to team member needs. What this means is that when a team member is bothered by another team member’s behavior, they can complain without the fear of retaliation or overreaction on your part.

What All Of This Means For You

The workplace of today is unlike any workplace that has existed before. With the discovery and exposure of the sexual harassment that has been occurring in the entertainment industry, all of the sudden the workplace rules have been changed. Where managers are going to run into the biggest problems is when it comes down to how they should handle workplace romances.

The thought of trying to do away with or prohibit any sort of workplace romance is a foolish thought. Work is where we spend most of our day and so this is naturally the place where romance is most likely to blossom. However, managers do have to deal with the question of when is romantic interaction appropriate at work? Surveys have shown that workplaces are where a large number of romantic relationships and even marriages begin. However, if these relationships go badly, then this type of interaction in the office could quickly turn in to harassment. Managers need to make sure that they understand the difference between flirting and humiliating behavior. Managers need to understand that sexual harassment in the office remains a real problem. Even things that may be viewed as harmless such as jokes and casual comments can lead to the creation of a toxic work environment. In order to create a workplace where everyone will want to work, managers need to create strong lines of communication and become part of a management team that is responsive to team member needs.

Managing a team is not an easy task for any manager. However, when you introduce workplace romance into the picture, all of a sudden things become much more complicated. The news about powerful men who have abused their positions in order to harass women in the workplace in the entertainment industry have cast a shadow over all workplaces. Managers need to keep an eye open to make sure that any interactions that are occurring in their work environment are consensual and don’t require a subordinate to agree to the demands of a more powerful employee.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that there would ever be a situation where a manager would have to step in and break up an workplace relationship?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

More and more companies are starting to realize that if they want to get the most out of their employees, they are going to have to get employees from different departments to work together. It turns out that this can be difficult to do. How is a manager going to use their manager skills to get extroverted sales people to work with introverted IT staff? How can creative types work with detail orientated budget types? Making this happen is a new task that managers are going to have to get good at.