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Work romances, while common, can have negative consequences

Updated: December 10, 2009 - 5:16 pm

Posted: February 12, 2007

Bill and Debbie Landon weren't looking for love at work. If you ask them, they would say fate bought them together. The Landons met in 1998, while working in the circulation department at The Virginian-Pilot. "Bill caught my eye when I went in for an interview," Debbie said. "I asked the supervisor, 'Who was that guy?' There was something about him."Both recalled times when at work they purposely found seats next to each other. "I looked forward to going into work and seeing him," Debbie said. While finding love in the workplace is common, some companies are concerned about sexual harassment lawsuits and conflicts between employees occurring when the romance turns sour. There could be dire consequences. According to the 2006 Workplace Romance study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and CareerJournal.com, 40 percent of employees have been involved in a workplace romance. The study also reveals that more than 70 percent of companies did not have policies that addressed office romances. Burt Whitt, partner and chairman of the labor and employment law section at Kaufman & Canoles, said the state of Virginia doesn't have a law that prohibits a no-dating policy nor does it require that companies implement one. "Our company has a no-dating policy," Whitt said. "We practice what we preach. When you have an office romance that goes awry, it can create a multitude of problems for the employer."One company that addresses issues of married or domestic partners working together is Cherry, Bekaert & Holland LLP in Virginia Beach. Christine Dwyer, marketing coordinator for the financial services company, said the policy states that when two associates in the same department or in a supervisory relationship get married or become domestic partners, one of them will be required to transfer, resign or be terminated within 30 days unless the other does so voluntarily. "The policy is in place to protect the company and make sure the work environment is comfortable for everyone around them," Dwyer said. Additional research from the workplace romance study discovered that 77 percent of human resource professionals and employees surveyed agreed that sexual harassment was the biggest factor in discouraging workplace romances."A person in a relationship may say that it was an unwelcome advance and claim sexual harassment," Whitt said. "It can also become a morale issue, when other employees think that the person is getting favorable treatment."While working together in the same department, the Landons didn't experience any negative feedback from other employees. In fact, their supervisors and co-workers were in favor of the relationship."We conducted ourselves in a way that was professional," Bill said. "We didn't appear to be 'love bugs.' We didn't advertise it." "Debbie and I never fought nor did we bring our problems into the workplace," he said. Not everyone agrees that companies have a right to discourage dating among their employees. Hank Karp, an industrial/organizational psychologist and assistant professor of management at Hampton University, agrees that inappropriate behavior shouldn't be tolerated at work but disagrees that a policy will make a difference. "It's silly to mandate how people feel," Karp said. "It's an invasion on the rights of an individual. No company has the right to do that."Karp says that the only time it becomes a problem is when a superior is dating an employee, therefore giving the perception of favoritism. Brian Littlejohn, president and CEO of Littlejohn Group, a human resources consultant and placement company in Georgia, knows firsthand what can happen when a relationship turns bad. As a manager at a previous company, Littlejohn had two employees who allowed their outside problems to seep over into the workplace, which made their co-workers uncomfortable and affected the morale of the office. "They would make snide comments that were inappropriate," Littlejohn said. "It got so bad that neither of them could be assigned to the same department."The female employee ended up resigning and finding a job elsewhere. Littlejohn firmly states that companies need to have a policy in place. It cuts down on sexual harassment suits and low team morale. In the long run, having a policy can save a company hundreds of thousands of dollars.Whitt said that companies that have been hit with sexual harassment suits can pay anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000 in damages if a jury sides with the plaintiff.As for Bill and Debbie, their story has a happier ending. Bill, a network administrator for Williams Mullen, and Debbie, an office consultant for State Farm, have been married for six and a half years. "Debbie was the kindest and sweetest person I've ever met," Bill said. "She's isn't self-involved and she loves doing things for people, even strangers.""Bill is such a kind and easy-going guy who makes everyone comfortable," Debbie said. Maybe office romances aren't so bad after all.

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