How should organisations cope with corporate cupid?  Is “sex at work” (attraction in organisations, office romances, intimacy at work, co-worker affairs) a matter for HR policy?  Can, or indeed should, one try to legislate matters of the heart or hormones?  Should romance or affairs be dealt with in an open adult way or made taboo?

Over the last 30 years there have been various studies on the topic.  Apart from the prurient, the Political Correctness police and the puritans, the argument goes that workplace romances can and do have an impact on organisational dynamics which in turn affects outcomes – productivity, morale, efficiency.  Senior people can lose the plot, take their eye off the ball, compromise their integrity.  New channels of unofficial communication can be opened up and equally closed down.  The appointment of favoured sexual partners can seriously affect how people perceive the transparency and justice of the selection or promotional system.

It’s not easy to get evidence on the sheer number of work-place romances within big and small organisations.  Studies in large organisations in American and Europe found that 2/3 to ¾ of employees admit to having (closely) observed a workplace romance in their organisation.  Only about 10% of people admit to having had one but a third later agree that all romantic relationships are initiated in the office.

It is really no wonder they happen.  The best predictor of attraction is propinquity.  If you spend 8 hours a day in the presence (or near presence) of others, it is no surprise that you get to like and feel attracted to them.  Why should the office not be a good place to find a partner?  People with similar levels of education, interests and values are recruited to organisations so the process of assortative mating begins at corporate selection.  Just as good, if not better than, the junior common room, the prayer group or bridge circle to meet a future partner.

Workplace relationships can be grouped and categorised in various ways, but two dimensions seem most crucial.  The first is whether the two people are at the same level on the corporate ladder or not: pretentiously called lateral or hierarchical relationships.  The second is whether the relationship is open (recognised, explicit) or closed (unacknowledged, secret).  Thus we have four groups: two junior accountants, or nurses, or journalists, begin to live together and (in time) announce their engagement (open, lateral); the head of marketing makes no bones about his affair with a new recruit from sales (open, hierarchical); two divorced board members are romantically linked but trying to keep it hush-hush (closed, lateral), and the engineering director is secretly bedding his married secretary (closed hierarchical).

A romance is different from an affair.  The latter implies that one or both parties are married/committed to others infusing the whole problem with an added moral dimension.  The charge of nepotism can arise where people (say husband and wife) are appointed together and acknowledge their relationship.  Another concern – almost unspeakable – is whether couples “do it” at work…and this is more than a grope in the stationery cupboard at the Christmas party!

Inevitably, employers who are themselves having a workplace relationship are more forgiving or even positive towards them.  Various studies have shown that female employees are significantly less favourable to office romance and sexual intimacy than males.  It is assumed that they have more to lose though of course the opposite case could be made. 

There is some evidence that when in lateral relationships job performance goes up, but in hierarchical relationships it goes down.  Further, it has been argued that work motivation improves because workplace romantics increase their enthusiasm for being at work.  Equally it has been supposed that work place relationships can increase employee motivation because the participants feel better about themselves and are willing to work longer shifts in order to extend their time together.  They may even get more involved with their work, since their ‘partners’ are part of the job.  Also, the increase in positive affect experienced by people in a workplace relationship “spills over” to increase their general level of satisfaction.

The more popular lay belief is that workplace relationships have a detrimental or deleterious effect on the work of both parties.  Energy is wasted in a closed relationship in the effort of keeping the whole thing a secret and too much time is spent on “lovey-dovey” talk and not enough on “batch-production targets” or “customer response forms”.

However, there are probably three factors that determine whether the relationships help or hinder factors relevant to organisational outcomes.

First, how good the relationship is.  A good healthy relationship must boost general morale, energy, enthusiasm and vice versa.  Put pressure on a relationship and you stress individuals.

Second, there are the corporate cultural values regarding relationships.  These are different from corporate policy, HR recommendations, or professional guide-lines.  The more that relationships are counter-cultural to the organisation, the more the problem and vice versa.

Third, there is the resentment by the non-relationship employees who feel, rightly or wrongly, that favouritism occurs.  This therefore means that while the happy pairs might increase their productivity and morale, these factors decrease for the majority not in a relationship.  If nepotism leads to positive discrimination it can lead to a lot of people becoming alienated and disengaged.  Some couples go to great lengths to show that their relationship does not compromise their decision making.

Workplace relationships happen; full stop.  Draconian legislation probably simply leads to secrecy, rumours, gossip and false accusations.  Being open, grown-up and sensible is best.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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