Managers look at the issue of office romances

Business Ethics

Many companies have rules requiring that employees do not date or marry fellow employees. The companies have a variety of reasons for this. Some companies believe that when employees date each other, it distracts one or both from the work they should be doing, resulting in lowered work efficiently. There is some concern that dating or attempts to date another coworker can contribute to sexual harassment complaints, and it raises concerns about favoritism, particularly if one of the dating couple has authority over others (Wilson et. al. 2003). These are not issues that can be ignored, because men and women are together in the workplace all the time. However, a business’s concern should be with its bottom line, not managing people’s private lives. Any policies they set should support that ultimate goal of making a profit.

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Most experts in management as well as many feminist lawyers agree that sex has no place in the workplaces, both for efficiency and to promote equality between the sexes (Schultz 2003). In fact, the idea that the workplace should be free of sexual innuendo and content has become an important part of workplace rules, supported by law. One way of looking at human behavior is called “social exchange theory,” which argues that a person can separate personal and workplace life. However, precisely defining how men and women should interact at work, since they typically work together now, can be complicated (Paul and Townsend 1998).


Paul and Townsend (1998) define workplace romances as “relationships between people working together which are characterized by sexual attraction whether or not they are made known to others through the participants’ behavior.” Throughout the 20th century, business leaders have seen such romances as potential problems in the workplace. They saw their managers as rational and believed that managers should not have to deal with irrational behavior of employees involved in workplace romances. The issue is more complicated now than it was at the beginning of the 20th century because sexual harassment is now illegal, and workplace romance issues can easily get caught up in sexual harassment issues. But even before sexual harassment was made illegal, many businesses had strict rules against workplace romances (Schultz 2003).


Some question whether businesses can ethically create rules dictating an issue that has a strong private element — who an individual chooses to be romantically involved with. This view argues that workplace rules should govern how a person does his or her job, and that those rules should cover any difficulties that might arise from an “office romance.” However, many businesses believe that the issue is more complex than that. Paul and Townsend (1998) note three possible motives for initiating an office romance in addition to love: ego, job-related, and power. While a romance based on love is sincere, some people pursue another person romantically simply to satisfy his or her ego. Others see office romances as a way to get promotions, raises, or job security. Some may see an office romance as enhancing the person’s power at work. All motivations might lead to workplace difficulties.

For instance, a romance where the two people hold different positions in the company’s hierarchy may reflect badly on the person in the higher position (Schultz 2003). The person in the lesser position may wonder if his or her advancement is based on personal competency or on the special relationship with a more powerful person. Others may wonder the same thing. If the general culture of the company looks down on office romances, the two people may find that they receive negative feedback from others (Paul and Townsend 1998).

Business managers look at the issue of office romances and see a variety of potential problems. The existence of the romance could make difficulties for the two within the workplace as they connect with the larger organization. Suspicion by others of favoritism in all sorts of ways, including allocation of resources, may be common. It may negatively affect cooperation among other workers, and raises the question of whether everyone is being treated fairly. Some managers worry that the two people will focus on each other too much at work and that productivity will suffer. The research is mixed on this point; some research shows that office romances actually improve communication and teamwork as well as increasing motivation. However, they can also cause frustration on the part of others, interfere with communication, and even damage reputations (Paul and Townsend 1998), although the authors note that marked hostility between workers will interfere even more. The problem one immediately sees is that if a romance ends badly, the situation could then deteriorate into a situation with decreased communication and increased hostility. Some research suggests that when people can set appropriate boundaries at work, a relationship has little impact. The problem for businesses is that not everyone will be able to set those barriers between personal and business life (Paul and Townsend 1998).

Some of those difficulties may come from concerns about favoritism. If a manager who allocates resources has a relationship with a person who heads a department who gets some of those resources, those who head other departments may wonder whether everyone is being given the same consideration when resources are divided among departments (Paul and Townsend 1998). Such situations also lend themselves to gossip, interfere with the flow of information as well as decreasing cooperation (Paul and Townsend 1998).

One of the more serious concerns businesses have is that office romances can lead to charges of discrimination (Paul and Townsend 1998). Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace that leads to a work place that is offensive, hostile, or intimidating (Paul and Townsend 1998). When one person approaches another at work because of some kind of romantic attraction, there is always the possibility that the other person will interpret the overture as sexual harassment. It could also be viewed as an attempt to gain some advantage, such as a promotion or salary increase. This can lead to charges of sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Paul and Townsend 1998), so such encounters are of legitimate concern for employers. In addition after a relationship ends one party or the other might make charges of violation of Chapter VII.

When it comes to determining whether a company’s rules are ethical or not, analysts can look at the rules on either a deontological or utilitarian basis. Rules made for deontological reasons are made because of a belief that the rules reflect the right way to live. The view is that what is right and wrong does not change over time. It is a moral argument. A deontological look at company rules might state not only that employees may not date each other but that no employee may live with a person of the opposite sex without benefit of marriage, or that homosexuals may not work for the company. While there may be beliefs within the company that these things are wrong, companies would have a hard time demonstrating that either lifestyle impacts negatively on the workplace. Such rules might well leave a company open to charges of discrimination. The history of rules against workplace romances has its roots in what affects business, not Victorian or Puritanical view of how people should live (Schultz 2003).

That fact makes such rules a matter of utilitarian ethics, or that the rules serve a utility or purpose for the business. By discouraging or banning office romances, a company may help protect itself from a variety of problems. Informally, it can help eliminate complications that come from established romances such as one person or department being treated more favorably than another. It an help reduce suspicion by employees that some people are treated better than others simply because of who they are romantically involved with. Discouraging office romances will not eliminate such concerns entirely, because people also form strong friendships at work, and such friendships can lead to suspicions of some kind of unfair application of privileges, promotions, salary, or resource allocations.

However, friendships do not lead to some of the problems that workplace romances can. Typically, friendships do not end in ways that cause significantly hurt feelings, anger or jealousy amount mature people, but romances can end quite unpleasantly. Once the romantic relationship is over, one party or the other may accuse the former partner of all sorts of things including various forms of sexual harassment (Wilson et. al. 2003). When the two people hold different positions in the hierarchy, very serious charges of things like pressures for sex in exchange for retaining one’s job can surface. The charges may not be true in any way, but the person in tne superior position has left him or herself vulnerable to such charges.

Because of the multiple complications that can stem from workplace romances, businesses have a “legitimate interest” (Paul and Townsend 1998) in creating rules that will help them avoid such complications. A business has a responsibility to keep itself running as smoothly as possible, and such rules can contribute to maintaining an atmosphere that encourages productivity.


Paul, Robert J. And James B. Townsend.1998. Managing the Workplace Romance: Protecting Employee and Employer Rights. Review of Business 19.

Schultz, Vicki. 2003. The Sanitized Workplace. Yale Law Journal 112.

Wilson, Rebecca J.; Filosa, Christine; and Fennel, Alex. 2003. Romantic Relationships at Work: Does Privacy Trump the Dating Police? Defense Counsel Journal 70:78-88.

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