Office romance a poor idea

Office romances are a fraught affair. In a recent 2019 Vault survey of over 700 participants, over 60 per cent of respondents admitted to dating a co-worker. In a Career Builder survey, only 36 per cent of respondents admitted dating a co-worker.

Gary Goodwin

Office romances are a fraught affair. (And by office romances, I am referring to fully consensual relationships between adults, which is important to clarify in a #MeToo era)

In a recent 2019 Vault survey of over 700 participants, over 60 per cent of respondents admitted to dating a co-worker. In a Career Builder survey, only 36 per cent of respondents admitted dating a co-worker. The Career Builder survey appears to have a higher contingent of reticent respondents. The Vault survey also stated that over 70 per cent of employees over the age of 50 have had an office romance. This may simply reflect a longer period of opportunity, but I prefer to interpret this as a tremendous argument against ageism.

Office romances continue to happen mainly because of continuing exposure, having something in common, possessing additional information and knowing that that the HR department vetted this person. However, we have seen how HR notwithstanding, conducting extensive psychometric testing does not necessarily uncover everything. Even with social media, we are becoming more interconnected but disconnected all at the same time.

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So, for example, a financial institution with 50,000 staff may have thousands of employees who are dating or have dated a co-worker. From an enterprise risk management perspective, this seems like a high probability that something could go wrong.

To mitigate this risk, according to the Vault survey, over 30 per cent of people dating a co-worker do carry on and marry. At the very least, if something goes wrong, it could no longer be suggested that the company did something wrong. In enterprise risk management parlance, we call that a transfer of risk.

The further difficulty appears to be that of the people having a relationship, over 60 per cent of those people kept it secret. This poses a further risk to the company in that they may not even be aware of a potential risk. This is one of those unknown unknowns.

According to a 2017 Society for Human Resource Management survey, 42 per cent of companies have regulations in place addressing workplace romances. Most companies seem to prefer not being involved in the delicate situation of policing such a policy in the first place. Covering one’s eyes to a situation and believing it disappears only works when you are a toddler.

The first response from a legal perspective may be to ban such situations totally. Although lawyers appear to be risk adverse, they still seem to enter, leave and re-enter relationships like most normal people. After all, working in the same office is how Barack and Michelle met. I may speak for a majority of the planet occupants when I say they are missed. I base this on the Twitterverse that 107 million people follow Obama while 61 million people follow Trump.

But from a corporate perspective, such a ban detracts away from the corporate culture. An appropriate enterprise risk management office romance policy (ERMOR which is as close to AMOUR that I could get) should reflect the corporate culture. A total ban could negatively impact a company’s efforts to attract individuals when they are prohibited from being attracted to each other.   

An appropriate ERMOR policy should be properly worded so as bring out those that would be disinclined to disclose a relationship in the first place. A company should consider training for supervisors in how to deal with workplace romances and how any discipline policy might be used. Office relationships should be possible so long as there is no negative impact on the individuals or the workplace. Any negative impact would then be subject to the progressive discipline policy. And not the 50 shades type of discipline.

Such a policy would also prohibit any sort of fraternization between a manager and a direct report. This includes romances or dating. As lawyers, we love to define things.

Having a consensual relationship policy assists in clarifying the situation. Bringing light and transparency to any relationship helps ensure that there has been no inducement or other pressure brought to bare.  This may include some company expectations on discouraging public displays of affection. Most of us get this discouragement from our children anyway, so it’s not a far reach to include it in the company policy.

The same Vault surveys suggests that only 60 per cent of staff appear familiar with the Company office romance policy. This also suggests that HR could communicate the existence of such a policy and the need for staff to disclose a relationship. An appropriate EMOUR policy should not disinhibit disclosure any further by compelling staff to hide the relationship any further below the sheets so to speak.

For solo relationships, we can see how excessive self-love created an undue hardship situation for a corporation In the recent case of UNIFOR, Local 2215 v I.M.P. Group Limited, 2019 CanLII 42096 (NS LA),. Although TMI, lawyers must keep up with the case law lest AI take over the research department. This case would likely not make it through the AI’s virus protection or firewalls.

Vault also found that almost a fifth of workers had affairs. Once again, taking the probability of something going wrong multiplied by the impact of when something goes wrong, and ignoring any ethic or other moral questions, from simply an ERM perspective: Just. Don’t.
 

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