David F. Swink

Threat Management


I Love My Boss: Office Romances

Office romances are common but can have severe consequences.

Posted Aug 09, 2010

Ousted Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Mark Hurd has settled allegations of sexual harassment against him by a female contract worker for HP, a person with knowledge of the case told The Associated Press.

The harassment accusation set off a chain of events that led to the discovery of allegedly falsified expense reports for dinners Mr. Hurd had with the woman and culminated in Hurd's forced resignation Friday from the world's largest technology company. The nature of the harassment complaint wasn't clear. Hurd and a lawyer representing the woman said the relationship was not sexual.

Grey's Anatomy and other primetime shows get great ratings from sexually pairing employees with their bosses. However, television should not be your role model for office relationships. Trysts and other special relationships between bosses and their assistants and consultants happen frequently but they are not only potentially legally hazardous, but can also impact the morale and productivity of the entire office.

Forty-one percent of employed Americans ages 25-40 have admitted to having engaged in an office romance, according to a joint survey sponsored by Glamour magazine and Lawyers.com. The study states further that respondents had the most problems with romance when a manager dated a reporting staff person.

Co-worker dating appears to be on the rise. According to a 2009 Careerbuilder.com survey, the vast majority of employed adults (76 percent) say that they think office romances are more common today than they were 10 years ago. Sixty-six percent of those who think office romances are more common today than they were 10 years ago believe it's because there are more women in the workforce. Fifty-nine percent list a relaxing of taboos as a key reason, while 51 percent cite longer hours.

Among employed adults, not all interoffice romances are believed to be acceptable. While those among peers are widely accepted (75 percent), relationships between management and subordinates are still considered unacceptable. Only 14 percent say dating one's own manager is acceptable, and just 18 percent approve of dating a subordinate.

It may be acceptable to have a romantic relationship with a co-worker, as long as those involved are professional about it, but it is not advisable to have a romantic relationship when there is a workplace power differential. When you're the CEO, a power differential exists with everyone else in the company. This type of relationship is a potential powder keg waiting to explode.

First of all, workplace romances are almost never secrets. Co-workers usually pick up on subtle cues that something is going on and then it becomes grist for the rumor mill.

Then there is the issue of "favoritism." If the employee who is having an affair with the boss gets something special like a great project or travel assignment, others may easily assume it because he/she is having a romance with the boss. Sometimes bosses will overcompensate to avoid showing favoritism to their romantic partner and thus deny them opportunities. Both of these dynamics wreak havoc on workplace group perceptions and dynamics.

Then there is the issue of the "break up." When it is over, it is usually the boss's employee who ends up leaving the company and whose career is negatively impacted the most, although in Mr. Hurd's case, it is his career and the company's reputation that are at risk.

When the romantic relationship involves a powerful person like the CEO, people who know about the relationship often choose not to advise their boss that he is on shaky ground with his office dalliances and to stop it. Many rainmakers in organizations don't get feedback about their behavior because companies don't want to lose their income generators or because others are afraid to confront them.

It's very predictable that people will fall in love with their bosses and vice versa. So what do you do if this happens and you both want to work at the same organization? Here are some considerations:

  1. Sever the romantic relationship, or
  2. Change the reporting relationship, so that the boss has no ability to affect the career of the employee. This may be impossible in a small organization.
  3. If you need help changing the reporting relationship or have concerns about the romance's effects, contact your organization's Human Resources Department to get professional advice so as not to legally jeopardize yourself or the company.

This post is the opinion of the author and NOT intended as legal advice.