Self-Deception and Workplace Romance

Revised 1/5/20

In previous posts, I’ve written extensively about the phenomenon of workplace romance from the perspective of the infidelity of the people involved.

But because so many of our clients at CTI are business owners and executives, I  am directing this post to discuss the constellation of problems that workplace romance may present overall.

Although the media focuses on the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, a parallel problem is that workplace romance is reaching epidemic proportions.

One of the reasons, according to Canadian psychologist  Dr. Jordan Peterson, is that we, as a culture, have not yet figured out how to conduct ourselves in a mixed-gender workplace.

The reality of a workplace populated by attractive others is a relatively new phenomenon in American business history. I agree with Dr. Peterson on his central point. There is a lot that we don’t know, and we’re deceiving ourselves if we think this is an easy policy-driven question. It’s not.

Emotional affairs at work can impact productivity, complicate human resource issues, and may result in losing key players. Managers should help establish clear boundaries and promote a more family-friendly environment.

On the other hand, as a culture, we don’t like to interfere in the personal lives of other people who are not close intimates.

This would require a shift away from the previous norm of a hands-off, freedom-loving, permissive environment. Many workplaces have been reluctant to set reasonable limits on workplace romance in the past. But that’s changing.

The Unintended Consequences of Affairs in the Workplace

There is a downside to having a permissive environment at work.

Workplace romances that cross the line can encourage complaints of favoritism, spread rumors and innuendo distract other staff, waste time and energy, and often lead to claims of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment issues, whether grounded in a legitimate abuse of power or a hidden agenda, often result in higher staff turnover and poor performance.

We are moving away from a focus on intent in favor of a focus on subjective consequences. And as a result, we are also moving toward a culture of emergent self-protection.

As a Manager or Owner, Should You be Concerned About Workplace Romance?

My First Master’s degree was in Labor Studies. I was surprised to read one study indicating that as many as 65% of office workers have had at least one workplace emotional affair over their work history.

Based on this high percentage, there’s a strong likelihood that right now, some of your employees may be having emotional affairs.

Many employers now prohibit their employees from dating staffers who report to them or who participate in any company decision-making that could impact their terms or conditions of employment.

Some employers preclude their employees from engaging in a consensual romantic relationship when they work in the same department.

Increasingly, employers are reserving the right to transfer, or terminate, either employee to avoid any potential conflict of interest or allegations of favoritism stemming from a workplace romance. It’s a messy no-win for employers and employees overall.

Corporate boards are starting to take stock of the problem. In recent years, high-level executives at companies such as McDonald’s, Boeing, Best Buy, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard have been forced out not only for sexual impropriety but also for consensual workplace romances with subordinates.

The Rise of #Me Too

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, This is a good time for business owners to review existing policies or procedures on the consequences of affairs in the workplace.

Employers are becoming more pro-active about curbing abuse of power, and are defensive in their policies and guidelines.

But it’s also essential for HR departments to move beyond only offering sexual harassment training.

Employers also need to start conducting training on the complex array of unintended consequences of affairs in the workplace and emotional relationships in the office.

A genuinely family-friendly sensibility remains elusive because it risks intruding into the moral matrix of personal decisions. As I said before, we have a long way to go because we are still figuring it out.

10 Solid Reasons Why Workplace Romance Can Be Problematic

  • Chronic ​​​​Flirting and serial emotional affairs distract the involved employees. But this bubble of distraction often absorbs the attention of other co-workers.
  • This often leads to gossip and decreased productivity. The entire unit may be impacted by the relationship, particularly if it is characterized by infidelity.
  • Depending on power dynamics, co-workers may feel marginalized. They may feel displaced from what they see as their rightful role in decision-making because of workplace romance.
  • Gossip and innuendo are not only bad for the parties involved and their workgroup, but it can also harm the firm. Workplace romance can stall your career. You might lose credibility and respect if an influential mentor is showing you special treatment. Companies are now taking an increasingly dim view of workplace romance.
  • Even the mere appearance of special treatment may lead to liability. In one recent California case, a manager had a history of allegedly showing favoritism to a series of female employees that he was involved with at the time. The complaints grew, morale collapsed, workplace romanceand legal problems ensued.
  • The California Supreme Court ruled that favoritism in the workplace stemming from a sexual relationship can create a hostile work environment in which female employees are seen as “sexual playthings” who can only advance their careers by engaging in “consensual” office romances with their superiors. (Miller v. California Department of Corrections).
  •  If the workplace romance goes sour, the parties often act out in the workplace. A relationship between a manager and a subordinate may not be genuinely consensual or described as such in hindsight. While it is often difficult to unpack the truth, courts are sensitive to the role power imbalances play in a workplace romance.

In one case, a church hired a personal assistant for a reverend. The assistant claimed that the reverend coerced him into a sexual relationship. The assistant also claimed that he did not want to do so, but did so “voluntarily” because the reverend threatened his job and also made him re-do already completed projects. The church’s counsel argued that it wasn’t liable because it was a consensual relationship. This argument failed to persuade, and a $5 million verdict was awarded. (Medina v. United Christian Evangelistic Association).

  •  Fatal attractions in the workplace create a dangerous and hostile work environment. The involved employee with more power might exert that power after the workplace romance has run its course. And the clueless employer is left with legal action to defend against.

A warehouse clerk and her manager began a consensual workplace relationship, which went on for a couple of months. The employer was blindsided by a lawsuit after the manager was allegedly enraged that the clerk ended the affair. The warehouse clerk alleged that he criticizing her work, verbally reprimanding her, and threatening to “make her life at work difficult” (Walker v. Mac Frugals Bargains, Closeouts, Inc.).

  • Workplace romance can cause a retention problem. When the relationship ends, it’s not unusual for employees to jump ship to make a clean break.
  • Work becomes uncomfortably messy when workplace romance ends. The end of the workplace romance impacts their capacity to collaborate in the future. And from a team perspective, their future work interactions are tainted by their previous romantic history.
  • A workplace romance that blows up can also derail your career.

An office manager in one case was awarded nearly $760,000 after a workplace romance ended badly. The manager was pursued by her boss who was a physician. She eventually had a consensual sexual relationship with him that lasted for a year. The relationship ended when the physician began a new relationship with another employee.

Things got antagonistic whan the doctor’s new girlfriend felt threatened by the previous relationship, and allegedly pressured the physician to fire the office manager. Yielding to the pressure from his new workplace romance partner, the office manager claimed that the doctor initiated a campaign of making her working environment increasingly difficult. She testified that he complained about the quality of her work and downgrading her scope of responsibilities. (Green v. Administrators of Tulane Educational Fund).

What Can Be Done about Workplace Romance?… Not Much

Whether or not infidelity is an issue, workplace romance can be fraught with peril for everyone involved. And because humans are attracted to one another, workplace romance will be a constant presence in American work life.

As long as humans are attracted to one another, the problems that sometimes arise aren’t going away anytime soon.

HR training on sexual harassment addresses only a small part of the problem.

We are entering new uncharted territory where the spheres of work and love potentially overlap. The consequences of affairs in the workplace are becoming increasingly complex.

Companies address the power dynamics of sexual harassment but are reluctant to advise employees on how to navigate the complexities of workplace romance. But even that reluctance is fading.

In an attempt to curb power abuses, workplace “Love Contracts” are increasingly attracting attention in HR departments.

In a “Love Contract,” the employer asks the involved employees to openly declare the consensual nature of the relationship, agree to abide by the corporate sexual harassment policy, and promptly report to HR any change in the relationship that could have adverse consequences in the workplace.

This all looks prudent on the surface, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Personal Responsibility

We have to set personal boundaries for ourselves and not rely on corporate policies to think through and address all of the potential pitfalls.

There are 3 reliable consequences of affairs in the workplace:

  • employees will not always behave with the company’s best interest in mind.
  • Your employer will not reliably buffer you from any unfortunate unintended consequences a workplace romance will have on your career. And sometimes this consequence is lifelong.
  • And if the workplace romance involves infidelity, things will get complicated on the home front at the same time. And if you have children, these complications may be lifelong for them as well.

Do You Need Coaching With a Workplace Romance?

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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