Mixing business with pleasure: Managing workplace intimacy

On the job relationships can be treacherous. Here's advice for dealing with them. Photo: Rajkrish/Dreamtime

WASHINGTON, July 3, 2013 – The development of intimate relationships in the workplace is inevitable. Let’s face it: the work environment is created to attract like-minded people who share career aspirations and possess similar knowledge, skills and abilities. After spending five consecutive eight-hour workdays together per week, it is only natural that many employees would connect on a deeper, more romantic level.  Young career-minded business professionals who are dedicated to advancing their careers have found few other environments as conducive for romance. In fact, according to a study conducted by Society for Human Resources Management, nearly 40% of workers have had an office romance.

Unfortunately, it almost goes without saying that romantic relationships can compromise business activity. Once personal lives enter the workplace, there is an immediate distraction from the job at hand for those involved in the relationship and to observant coworkers. In addition, there is a high likelihood that these relationships will lead to serious division among coworkers in the workplace, particularly when the two people involved in the relationship start to quarrel and even break up. This sets up the perfect scenario for sexual harassment claims and often other legal issues for the company that employs the unhappy couple.

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The resulting challenge stemming from workplace breakups is how to manage such relationships so that they do not interfere with business objectives. Managers already find it difficult to deal with employees’ personal issues. Thus, if employees do find themselves in a romantic relationship, it is imperative that they, to the best of their ability, separate the personal from the professional.

Although CEOs know that romantic relationships in the office will happen, it is best for organizations to implement policies that discourage such relationships and include practical alternatives for those individuals involved. High-risk organizations such as those involving public safety and security have dealt with this issue for many years and have developed some the most effective anti work-romance related policies.

For example, there should be a strict policy against supervisor-subordinate relationships. This policy must be absolute. There can be no equivocation. In the case where peers are involved in a relationship, organizations have found that physical separation is one key to managing workplace intimacy. If possible, organizations should physically separate two such individuals by placing their workstations on different floors of a building, or even better, in different geographic locations.

Additionally, companies can assign two employees involved in a relationship to different work shifts so that they do not work together. Each of these strategies will limit the contact the individuals can have with one another while at work, reducing the potential for the relationship to become an issue. 

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In reality, physical separation is an effective workplace management strategy. But it may reduce the time two people can be together during personal, non work-related time.  This truly demonstrates the difficulty of managing workplace intimacy for all people involved. There are a great many stories where two people who are having a relationship are discovered sneaking into all sorts of inappropriate places to “see” each other at work even though they are physically separated. This, unfortunately, is more likely to happen when they are separated at work and have limited time together at home.  

In order for a company to deal with the romantic relationship most effectively, management must be aware of the relationship. When the relationship is a secret, the work environment is put at an additional risk. In the case of David Petraeus, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, his secret relationship with journalist Paula Broadwell could have threatened national security. While this particular example is perhaps extreme, intimacy in the workplace does represent a conflict of interest between the employee and the employer which, when kept a secret, can destroy the professional relationship between both parties.  

Workplace intimacy is a very complex issue, and, as we have seen, it has the potential to become unethical. And with regard to ethics, a relationship between an employee and a client can be one of the worst possible scenarios. In general, employees should not be permitted to have a personal relationship with a client of the company because the potential business conflict is immediate and obvious.

In rare instances, an employee can be “walled off” from the project in which such a client is involved.  However, this presents significant unwanted challenges to the business, making a successful and prosperous business relationship with such a client even more difficult.  For that reason, when an employee-client relationship is revealed or becomes evident, it is still best that employers become aware of the relationship and offer solutions that help to preserve the privacy of the relationship while also protecting business interests.

One alternative to ending a workplace relationship amicably is to implement an employee assistance program to help facilitate that goal while working through the workplace conflicts that may arise. Other alternatives include helping the involved employees find different jobs within the organization. If these employees feel that their employer can efficiently protect their personal information, they will be more likely to reach out to their employer and seek assistance.

Hoping that two people who become attracted to one another on the job would have the self-discipline to stop romance in its tracks is wishful thinking. The reality is that it is nearly impossible, psychologically, for most people to do this. However, employees in this type of situation have the power to exercise professionalism into the situation by alerting their employer of the relationship and then working with the employer to make appropriate accommodations to manage it. Inserting a helpful and trusted third party into the process both reduces the tension involved with individual fears about the secrecy of the romance and communicates to the employer that both individuals are prioritizing their careers.

This is a powerful message to convey to an employer, and it helps ensure that employees involved in a romantic relationship can still maintain their professional reputations and advance their careers.  Otherwise, as in the cases of General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, romantic partners can compromise not only their jobs, but their entire careers as well.


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Cassi Fields

Dr. Cassi Fields has provided expert opinion on career and workplace issues for nationally recognized media outlets including Forbes, TheStreet TV, MSNBC.com, FOX News Live, US News & World Report, Recruiter.com, WUSA9, News Channel 8, HR.com, and more. Dr. Fields, who received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

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