Monday, November 25, 2002

Ban office romance, many say

Decreased productivity, morale cited in survey

By Jennifer Wirth
Gannett News Service

Cindy Kretowicz remembers having to choose between her job and the man she was dating.

She was working as a title clerk for an auto dealership in Merritt Island, Fla. But when the dealer passed out a new handbook prohibiting managers from dating employees, her boyfriend - also an employee - said they would have to stop seeing each other.

She quit instead, and soon they were married. "I didn't like my company dictating who I can and cannot see," she said. "When I punch out, it's my time and my business who I choose to spend it with."

But a growing number of companies disagree.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the number of human-resource professionals who want companies to have the right to prohibit office romance is rising. In a survey last year, 16 percent of workers and human resource staffers polled said interoffice romance was unacceptable. And more than half said companies had the right to ban workplace relationships.

Among their concerns:

• Legal liability for sexual harassment; 95 percent of those surveyed cited that as a concern.

• Lowered productivity of distracted workers.

• Lowered morale among co-workers who see favoritism.

• The potential for retaliation if the relationship ends.

"Let's face it, most relationships go sour," said Don Phin, president of Employer Advisors Network Inc. and the author of HR That Works! He advises his clients to have written policies in place, prohibiting workplace romance, or at least limiting it.

Training varies

Mr. Phin said employers also must properly communicate the policy and provide training.

According to the SHRM survey, 82 percent of male and 90 percent of female employees said they had never received training on workplace-romance management - even given the fact that more than half of all human-resource professionals reported that their organizations had been negatively affected by a workplace romance.

The Boeing Co., with 2,500 workers in Brevard County, Fla., is among employers that do put managers through formal training to learn how to deal with and discourage sexual harassment, said company spokesman Glen Golightly.

Boeing has no official dating policy, although "we strongly discourage manager-employee relations. It's just understood."

With almost equal numbers of men and women in the workplace - and many working long hours - the potential for a social life outside work decreases.

That leaves many people to find their dates among the same people they clock in with.

At some companies, the consequences of workplace romances can include formal reprimand, transfer and termination.

Encouraging dating

But Montana State University Psychology Professor Charles Pierce thinks such relationships should be evaluated case-by-case.

"In certain circumstances, workplace romances can be OK," he said. "In fact, they can be beneficial. They bring enthusiasm and energy to the work."

Michelle Osborn works for a company that encourages workplace relationships. The marketing director for Melbourne's Legacy for Life works with her fiance David at the nutritional-supplements company.

"They employ other husband-and-wife teams, as well as brothers, sisters and children of other employees. We are a family-friendly company that realizes that friendships and even relationships often occur within the workplace," she said. "We simply encourage professional, responsible behavior."

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