Sexual harassment — and how to deal with it — is well understood by most companies. But now new dangers are being recognized in the ways an office romance affects the people around it. “Hostile work environment” claims, and their financial costs, are just the start.
Should coworkers have sex with each other? Should employers try to stop them?
The answer to the first question is that the question isn’t worth answering — because office romance is inevitable anyway. The answer to the second is more interesting. And due to recent shifts in the legal climate, for companies, it’s also more scary.
There is a misunderstanding at the epicenter of the office romance debate, even as it attracts increasing scrutiny due to famous examples such as the recent episode involving CBS Corp.’s “Late Show With David Letterman” host. Contrary to some commonly misread signals, managers are not interested in stamping out employee dating. Cohesive relationships among employees, including some that become romantic, can help build esprit de corps within the work team and affinity for the company. However, sexual relationships and romances change office dynamics in potentially problematic ways, presenting legal challenges such as allegations about sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, and those challenges need to be managed skillfully.
Before addressing the challenges, though, we should recognize just how common and unstoppable office romance is. Surveys provide convincing evidence:
- In a survey by CareerBuilder.com in 2009, 40% of respondents revealed that they have dated a coworker, with 18% indicating two or more such relationships.1 An additional 12% are on the sidelines but eager to join the scrum.
- Office romances extend across the age spectrum. Employees between the ages of 35 and 44 are the most likely demographic to date a coworker, with 44% acknowledging that they had done so.2 In the age group of 55 and older, 34% of employees admitted to having an office relationship.
To be clear, an office romance is a relationship between two individuals employed by the same company that advances beyond the socially acceptable employer-employee association and the work-related duties that require their interaction. The relationship can be of a sexual nature where employees engage in sexual activities in and outside work, or where one employee makes sexually suggestive remarks about the other.