It’s not all fair in love at work (particularly if you’re a woman)

office romance, love at work
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There was much discussion recently when it was reported that robots are now being designed with the capability to mimic human emotion.

While some question the desirability of this, I thought that it was a refreshing change from usual management practices which seem to want humans to behave more like robots.

This is most apparent in organisational approaches to romance in the workplace. In many organisations, any sort of romantic relationship is viewed as a perplexing, potentially troublesome disruption to the work routine.

HR managers are especially wary, with up to three quarters of them anticipating that workplace romances will end up in a complaint of sexual harassment. This has resulted in calls for more policies on workplace romances, which have been dubbed “love contracts”.

Fortunately, these do not seem to have caught on, but songwriters Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern summed up this approach best:

“A fine romance with no quarrels with no insults and all morals”

In terms of work flow, work production, and working relationships it would be far better if people did not get romantically involved with one another. However, that’s never going to happen.

For people to fall for one another generally speaking it helps for them to be in relatively close proximity, to be in contact with one another and to share similar views and interests. Being able to collaborate with the other person, especially on something that is meaningful to them, also helps to establish and deepen the ties. These conditions all exist in the workplace.

Therefore, it should be of no surprise that whilst we obsess about the 20% of workplace relationships that end up in harassment claims, between half to three quarters become long-term relationships and turn into marriage.

Unfortunately, organisations that take a dim view of workplace liaisons may choose to take some form of action. Whilst these policies may seem to be fair on the surface women tend to fare worse overall. Although relationships between co-workers are seen as the least problematic and most accepted, relationships between manager and direct report are viewed with much suspicion. Some organisations will tend to ask one person to move to another role and/or department. Usually this is the more junior person. Given the way hierarchies are structured, this will most often be the woman.

To make matters worse, gender stereotypes play their part with more negative judgements being made about women in such situations. People find it easier to explain why a woman is involved in a relationship other than being in love: gold-digger and ambitious being two of the less crude verdicts. Men tend to be far less harshly judged and in some studies their status may even be somewhat enhanced. If the relationship ends a man will be seen as ‘coping’ but a woman will be described as ‘over-emotional’. Gender stereotypes have negative implications for women involved in relationships at work.

Liaisons can bring benefits: increases in commitment, morale and job satisfaction. But just as no-one is forcing employees to form relationships with one another to get the benefits, we need to be careful about legislating against them too. There are clearly concerns about bias, favouritism and harassment but there is little need for an overly risk avoidance, legalistic approach.

Couples need to be professional in the workplace; organisations need to use a light touch, taking action only when it is necessary; and all of us could examine our own attitudes to relationships and consider whether we are in fact being fair in love at work.

About the author

Professor Binna Kandola OBE is a diversity expert and founder of business psychologists Pearn Kandola. He has written extensively about gender in the work place, and seeks to tackle unconscious bias in the business world.

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