Time to regulate office romance

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vavi p14 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has dismissed as mischievous and cheap political point-scoring allegations that millions of rand were plundered from a labour federation-linked pension administrator  and that he did nothing about it. Photo: Antoine de Ras

Employers should develop policies to help workers manage office romance for the sake of all parties, writes Liza van Wyk.

Johannesburg - There are rumours simmering along the corridors of many companies and organisations suggesting that to run a company that makes its employees happy, its bosses effective and its shareholders rich, companies should encourage employees to have affairs with one another.

The result, the gossipers believe, will turn the workplace into a happy, vibrant place that is powered towards profitability by workplace flirtation and romance.

Admittedly, this rumour and gossip has not become a full-blown business strategy.

It may never be.

To more traditionally-minded managers, encouraging staff to seduce one another may seem a step too far.

Perhaps those dreaming about this kind of dangerous liaison on factory floors and office parks have read a book called Intimacy: International Survey of the Sex Lives of People at Work.

In the book, authors Andrew and Nada Kakabadse have concluded that physical intimacy makes employees come to work with a spring in their step, a twinkle in their eye.

“From the organisational perspective, these relationships are very positive because they make people more committed to the employer,” according to Kakabadse.

In the midst of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s admission of having had sex with a junior subordinate and insisted they had an affair and it was consensual, I am sure many companies and organisations have been reflecting on the ins and outs of sex in the workplace and how to handle it.

First let us define what a workplace romance is: A workplace romance can be defined as some form of intimate relationship between two employees who have both expressed their romantic feelings in the form of dating or other intimate association.

It is not uncommon for an employee to meet their future spouse or life-partner at their workplace. The reality in today’s world is that time spent at work makes up a large percentage of our daily lives, and the people with whom we interact at work, often become more than just work colleagues.

But is it ideal for employees to become romantically involved with their colleagues?

There will always be those “happy ending” stories about how one person met their spouse at work, that it was love at first sight and that they got married. But for every one of those “happy ending” stories, there will be many more stories which have ended in dismissal.

Consider the situation in which an employee, married to another person, becomes romantically involved with another employee at the same workplace, and this adulterous relationship is discovered by the spouse of the adulterous employee. Or a director, having an affair with his secretary, tiring of this affair, ends the affair, and then seeks to make the secretary’s life so unbearable in the workplace that the secretary resigns, and then claims constructive dismissal. Or a romance coming to an untimely and unhappy ending and the scorned partner then laying charges of sexual harassment against the employee with whom they were romantically involved.

None of these scenarios bodes well for the employer in the long run. And all will result in some form of labour dispute.

The difficulty which the employer faces in such circumstances, apart from the obvious ones stated above, is that, because a romantic relationship in the workplace is, without any policies to the contrary, a personal issue between two apparently consenting adults the employer is not permitted to address this issue with the two employees concerned, unless or until that relationship or its demise has an impact on the business, either in the form of a breakdown in staff morale or staff relations generally, or results in poor performance in the workplace.

The first question bosses and their human resources staff should be asking themselves is: what is the lure of the office romance?

There are several factors behind the rise of workplace affairs. We work long office hours. This means work develops more significance in our lives as leisure diminishes. It also means as we spend more time with each other, we develop more emotional impact on one another more than ever before.

As counselling psychologists often advise, bonding with others is one of the commonest ways we have of dealing with stress, hence increased stress at work conspires to produce workplace romantic relationships.

Indeed, the real issue, perhaps, is that the demands of today’s hyper-competitive work environment mean we have to endure such long hours in the office and away from socialising that it is inevitable our loneliness is dealt with by workplace romantic relationships.

Perhaps more interesting is that case studies and surveys of workplace romances report both positive and negative workplace outcomes.

On the positive side, romantic relationships can improve productivity through positive communication and teamwork and reducing tension.

There are also findings that workplace romances increase motivation.

On the negative side workplace romances can also create hostility in work groups, distort communication, reduce the quality of decisions and damage the reputation of a group and its members. That is why office affairs are discouraged by employers.

They are wary of the impact such liaisons can have on workplace relationships, moral, gossip and productivity.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of workplace romance is sexual harassment and the exposure to the company to sexual harassment charges.

In legal terms, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.

Forms of sexual harassment include issues such as offensive sexual innuendoes, unwelcome physical contact, sexual remarks and inquiries, demands for sexual favours to keep a job or obtain a promotion and hostile work environment harassment.

In other words sexual harassment can include any sexually offensive conduct that permeates the workplace to make it a difficult, poisoned and unpleasant work environment.

However some occupational psychologists suggest romance makes for a more enjoyable workplace, reduces stress, lowers anxiety and increases morale.

But there are more negatives than positives for workplace affairs. There are negative effects such as co-worker disapproval, cynicism, downright hostility and disruption of lines of communication.

Co-workers are usually concerned that the lovers will show favouritism to each other, to the detriment of everyone else.

The most dangerous and much talked-about kind of office liaison is the one between the boss and someone lower down the hierarchy as it happened with Vavi.

And we should not forget that after the heady rush of falling in love, many affairs end in tears, putting the image of the company or organisation into disrepute.

Thus workplace passion can cost the company dearly when the romantic ties are broken.

The essential problem is that conducting an affair at work inevitably endangers one’s professional reputation.

When it comes to the office romance, experience has shown that problems typically arise when such relationships break down, leading to potential claims for sexual harassment.

That is why in the US senior executives have even been known to ask their partners to sign a love contract, prior to embarking on an office romance, in order to minimise their exposure to potential harassment claims in the future.

So now that we know that workplace seduction is a reality, what must companies do?

A discussion on office romance raises important questions. Should companies prohibit romantic activity in the workplace to protect their own interests? Should workplace activity be legislated? Is it realistic and, if so, what would it achieve? Could such policies be considered a direct violation of individual rights?

That is why many American companies have developed a “Cupid Contract” through which those who are an item at work, sign on the dotted line that they have entered into the relationship voluntarily and that it won’t interfere with work. Such contracts are mostly between a supervisor and subordinate.

Such “love contracts” or “consensual relationship contracts” spell out that the liaison is mutually agreeable and consensual and that, if and when it reaches a breaking point, both parties are to resolve any disputes and avoid accusations of a sexual harassment nature.

In turn, the contract is supposed to protect those involved from dismissal, demotion, or transfer.

US companies say those who signed such contracts appear to be happier at work, enthusiastic, motivated, and above all determined to alleviate line managers’ fears that their workplace romance will have a negative effect on work.

It is unlikely that such a contract could be legally enforced in South Africa.

Still, the common perception of workplace romances appears to be mainly negative, to the extent that a minority of work organisations have banned them altogether.

*Liza van Wyk is chief executive of AstroTech Training, which offers leadership development training.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.


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