Workplace Dating & Sexual Harassment Issues

Workplace Dating & Sexual Harassment Issues

Workplace romance and sexual harassment in the workplace are the topics to be covered in this paper. There is a great deal of scholarly literature on those issues and they will be reviewed and critiqued in this paper, along with statistics that show workplace dating is an ongoing (although controversial and potentially tension-creating) phenomenon .

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How Common is Workplace Dating?

The issue of workplace romance is not a new one, and from the available literature is appears that the workplace is an ideal environment for meeting, dating, and even falling in love with a co-worker. According to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), a recent study showed that “40% of the respondents” to a survey reported they met their future spouse “at or through work.”

In the Kansas City Business Journal another survey (conducted by CareerBuilder.com) is presented that shows “more than a third” of 7,000 individuals that responded to the poll have dated a co-worker (Hawley, 2012). Moreover, thirty-one percent of participants in the survey who admitted to having dated a co-worker said “their office romances ended in marriage” (Hawley). Dating the boss in the workplace adds possible tension and stress to both individuals on some level, but the survey that Hawley references shows that “Almost one in five people (18%) say they’ve dated their boss”; 35% of women say they have dated a supervisor or superior person compared with only 23% of men (Hawley).

The responses to the CareerBuilder.com survey show that 37% of those who have had workplace romances have kept those relationships a secret (Hawley). Moreover, 19% of respondents say they are “more attracted to people who work in similar jobs” and 13% indicated that the most common “spark to a relationship” was meeting a co-worker somewhere outside of the work environment (Hawley).

In the research presented by SIOP, Associate Professor Charles A. Pierce (University of Memphis) reports that “the development of interpersonal relationships at work is inevitable” since men and women spend “most of the weekday hours together.” Pierce adds that there are positives; for example, workplace romance participants “are happier with their jobs, and more motivatedand perform better” (SIOP),

However, there are a substantial number of drawbacks and serious issues that can occur when an office romance goes sour, or the two participants act in unprofessional ways during the workday.

The Scholarly Literature on Workplace Romance

Should Workplace Dating be Flat-Out Prohibited?

There are companies that are either considering approaches to managing workplace dating or flat-out deciding to prohibit workplace dating. In the Journal of Business Ethics the author (C. Boyd) writes that many executives have been fired or forced to resign due to “romantic entanglement” (Boyd, 2010). He mentions the head of the American Red Cross (in 2007); the President of the World Bank (2007); the President and CEO of Boeing; and other top executives (including the SVP of Marketing Communication from Wal-Mart) have either resigned or been fired for improper hierarchal romantic involvement. And there was the case of the of the Harvard Business Review (Suzy Wetlaufer) who had an affair with the CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch; the interesting aspect to this case is that Wetlaufer was assigned to interview Welch and wound up getting intimately involved with the GE icon Welch (Boyd, 325).

Meanwhile, why are companies worried about relationships in the workplace? Boyd writes that many organizations feel they have a “moral duty” to protect employees from “sexuality in the workplace” (326). On a deeper level, some companies worry about the sparks that could turn into a terrible fire when married employees engage in adultery in the workplace, Boyd continues (326). The author mentions specific employment sectors in which bans on dating in the workplace are “grounded in an inherent conflict of interest” — such as police officers or prison employees dating “known felons or the children of known felons” (327).

The reason behind the rule of no dating in the workplace has “twin themes,” Boyd explains on 327: a) co-workers witnessing a pair of workers that are dating and to some degree “carrying on” in the workplace; this gossip is a distraction to all employees; and b) the “overall effect on productivity is considered harmful to the firm,” and hence this attitude leads to the fact that dating should be banned (Boyd, 327). It boils down to what Schultz (2003) insists workplace romance: “Classical organizational theory holds that sexuality and other ‘personal’ forces are at odds with productivity and out of place in organizational life” (Boyd, 327).

The fear of sexual harassment suits, referenced elsewhere in this paper, is the driver that leads some companies to prohibit workplace dating. Two potential outcomes of a romance that developed in the workplace are mentioned by Boyd on page 328: a) if the romance fails and there is an unfortunate breakup, one of the partner’s attempts to reconcile the affair could be “perceived by the other former partner as harassment” — and the employer, it is presumed, could be held to be responsible for “not protecting that employee” from the perceived harassment (even though the other party in the romance may believe that he is just trying to repair the relationship and is not trying to harass the other party); and b) when the workplace romance is between a superior and a subordinate, there is a potential for one of the subordinate’s co-workers “could sue for sexual harassment because of real or perceived favoritism” that could arise from the relationship (Boyd, 328).

The Scholarly Literature on Workplace Romance

Social Media “Spill-over”

Lisa A. Mainiero writes in the peer-reviewed journal The Academy of Management Perspectives that social media has come in to play a significant role in the matter of workplace romance and workplace harassment. Mainiero a whole “new realm of legal and ethical implications” come into the forefront because of digital / social media (Mainiero, 2013). For example, co-workers (while at work) can “friend” one another on Facebook, “connect” with each other as colleagues on LinkedIn, and they can even “monitor each other’s locations” by logging into Foursquare right before a lunch meeting (Mainiero, 187).

There is also Twitter, of course, and “tweets” between two people can be expected (albeit the tone and substance of those tweets can be seen as too personal for the workplace), and there is the additional potential for the photos posted on Instagram. In the Mainiero article the author mentions that “an innocent vacation photo” of someone “cavorting on the beach in a bikini” that somehow gets passed around “may draw unwanted attention” (187).

The question is raised about potential instances of sexual harassment through social media; for example, if there is bad blood between two employees who fell in love and then broke up in a painful clash of some kind, rude, angry texts passed from one party to the other could be seen as sexual harassment. And the question that is pertinent in this case is, if the sexual harassment takes place outside the boundaries of the workplace, will this require changes to the company human relations (HR) guidelines? Even though the two are not at work, because they are employees and one is harassing the other, this could be construed as harassment by the HR department. And this is why Mainiero is suggesting that social media is bringing with it the need for “a new standard of consensual romance vs. sexual harassment” (188).

Commenting on the quality of workplace romances, Mainiero references numerous scholarly studies that show (and she is paraphrasing here) that the majority of romantic relationship in the workplace are “sincere, love-motivated, and of the as opposed to short-lived flings or job-motivated utilitarian relationships” (188). In fact there is evidence that workplace romances are “positively associated with one’s job performance” and that organizational “commitment” is increased when two employees have fallen in love (188). In other words, an employee’s feelings towards his or her job are enhanced through what the author calls a “spillover effect.” Indeed, love brings out the best in many people, and being in love and happily so means going to work is a pleasure because the one you love is there and waiting to see you.

The downside discussed by Mainiero is always possible; and for example when a “hierarchical workplace romance” is used by one party in the romance to advance a career, this can be disruptive to others. That is, when a female worker is having an affair with a supervisor, and the sense of favoritism is seen by others, this creates a very negative vibe in that workplace. “The entire group” of employees in the workplace can be negatively impacted when a male boss who is dating a female employee seems to be giving her “lighter workloads, promotions, pay increases, or other special benefits” (Mainiero, 189).

There is a serious risk of sexual harassment after a workplace romance goes sour, a topic which was briefly touched on earlier in this paper. Mainiero said a conflict of interest is possible because, for example, a woman meets a man at work. They are in the same department. “She” texts him at work asking if he would like to have a drink after their shift is over. He says yes and a relationship / romance ensues. However, it turns out that he is “too clingy” and they stop seeing one another. However, he is still attracted to her and texts her about how sexy her walk is as she moves down the hallway, and texts about “intimate details of their relationship” (Mainiero, 189).

In time, he pesters her through texts and so she blocks him from her Facebook page and asks him not to follow her on Twitter. But he continues to pursue her through social media, becoming something of an annoyance. When does this situation become harassment? Should the woman go to HR and report him? Mainiero references a survey of HR directors and it shows that sixty-seven percent of the HR respondents say “the potential for retaliation between employees involved in a concluding romance is the reason romances should be discouraged or even prohibited” (Mainiero, 190). Moreover, that same survey referenced in the sentence above shows that 77% of HR professionals believe that sexual harassment claims are “a likely outcome from workplace romances” (Mainiero).

The Scholarly Literature on Workplace Romance

Addressing Sexual Harassment Claims from Social Media Issues

Picking up where the previous scholarly article left off regarding social media, the Journal of Business Ethics features an article (also presented in part by Mainiero) in which the authors recommend that human resource professionals “take a more active role in communicating appropriate ethical rules of conduct” when it comes to the use of social media technologies “inside and outside the office” (Mainiero, et al., 2013).

The article references the concept of “moral intensity” as it applies to ethics and workplace romance. Mainiero references Jones (1991), who created a multi-dimensional model with the intention of seeing workplace romance through the lens of ethics. The construct has six components: a) social consensus (is the social agreement between two people “evil or good”; b) proximity (are there beneficiaries or victims when it comes to the workplace relationship); c) magnitude of consequences (was there harm or benefit to the parties); d) concentration of effect (who else was impacted and were they harmed or helped); e) probability of effect (what is the likelihood that someone will be harmed or that someone will benefit); and f) temporary immediacy (how long between the beginning of the relationship to the time when there will be “consequences”) (Mainiero, 369).

This six-layer model may seem a bit esoteric, but the overriding impact should rest on the point that “high moral intensity” would require an intervention and “lower moral intensity” would likely not require “immediate action or intervention” (Mainiero, 369). What is easier to grasp is Mainiero’s point that there is definitely a “gray area” when it comes to social media and workplace romance. In other words, which communication from social media constitutes “the direct legal standard of harassment” (which would require action on the part of the organization), and could be perceived as “bothersome or intrusive” to an employee outside of the workplace? (Mainiero, 372).

This above-mentioned question is the key ethical question that management has to come to terms with, and has to understand in terms of the legal implications vis-a-vis privacy concerns. It boils down to what was said, when it was said, how it was said and to whom it was said, Mainiero continues. Again, this is a gray area, but it is one that is vitally important for workplace supervisors to take into account.

The Scholarly Literature on Workplace Romance

Employees’ Rights to Privacy

Lynn Hoffman and colleagues present an argument that explains why office romances are “flourishing” and includes information on how corporations should respond to these relationships. This article was published well before the emergence of social media, but it clearly discusses the situation as the company sees it, and the rights to privacy as the employee sees it. Why are so many romances launched in the workplace? The movement of women into the workplace “coupled with the longer hours” that employees work creates the potential for romance (Hoffman, 1997).

In fact as of 1997, the average American was working over 168 hours a year; this means that more than ever, the office (or workplace) is a more substantial part of employees’ lives. Hoffman calls the additional working time “a significant underpinning of our sociological existence” (264). In fact studies referenced by Hoffman show that many people postpone marriage or even long-term relationships until they begin their careers. Hence, once they are in a career, and at a permanent workplace, they hope to find partners “and establish families” (Hoffman, 264). Given the hours at work, and the search for a partner, “many find dating other employees at work very natural” (Hoffman, 264).

A sense of camaraderie and a need to like other employees working in the same division leads to friendships. People working closely together “build complex webs of mutual needs, dependence, and cooperation as they struggle to achieve goals, sales quotas, product designs, strategies, and especially deadlines” (Hoffman, 264). In addition, most men and women prefer “emotional involvement” prior to sexual intimacy, and the emotional involvement part of those needs can often be met at work, Hoffman continues (264).

The “prolonged proximity in work environments” gives workers a good chance to observe others’ values, ethics, and personality traits, which could not be possible for two people who met online or in a dating website. A survey taken in the early 1990s shows that 24% of participants had been involved in an office romance, and 56% of respondents said that the person they were presently with was a peer in a work environment (Hoffman, 264).

A survey by Anderson and Hunsaker (1985) showed that 61% of polled companies did not have a specific policy on office dating; granted, this was a long time ago, but juxtaposed with other data presented in this research paper, one can see that companies today, many of them, still do not have specific policies about dating in the workplace (Hoffman, 265). One fear associated with a company’s unwillingness to put forth a rule against dating is the privacy issue. “Generally what employees do after hours” and away from the workplace “is outside the company’s purview”; hence, attempts to establish rules about dating might run into legal problems (court suits). Any company that attempts to legislate the off-duty conduct of employees could find that legal actions are taken against them vis-a-vis “invasion of privacy” (Hoffman, 267).

Of course any company hoping to control an employee’s “off-duty conduct have the burden to prove that there is a compelling reason to do so”; and moreover, the majority of companies researched by Hoffman believe that there is a “higher priority” on respecting employees’ privacy and personal rights than on trying to dictate as to workplace romances (267).

Part of the fear that employers have regarding workplace romance is that when a break-up occurs, the possibility of sexual harassment lingers. Granted, this has been presented previously in this paper, but in 1997 theories and rules were just being experimented with which is why this is relevant. At the time of this article being published, there was a sharp increase in sexual harassment claims including hefty financial awards being given; so, employers had “an increasing obligation and right to intervene” (Hoffman, 268). Also, the right to privacy in 1997 in the workplace was “decreasing depending on the extent of the employer liability” (Hoffman, 268).

No one could blame employers in this era for being concerned about romance and harassment in their workplaces; in Ellison v. Brady, the Sixth Circuit Court found that the employer was “liable for the actions of an unwelcome suitor” in his workplace (Hoffman, 269).


In conclusion, the times have changed, and so have the laws; but romance in the workplace (and harassment resulting from romance gone sour) is still a hot topic and the subject of much debate. Should there be rules forbidding romance in the workplace? Should employers just ignore romances in the workplace in fear of intruding on a person’s privacy? These questions are contemporary and relevant, but the answers vary depending on what state a person lives in and on the particular values of a company.

Works Cited

Boyd, C. (2010). The Debate Over the Prohibition of Romance in the Workplace. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 97, 325-338.

Hawley, B. (2012). First comes office love, then comes marriage Kansas City Business

Journal. Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://www.bizjournals.com.

Hoffman, L., Clinebell, S., and Kilpatrick, J. (1997). Office Romances: The New

Battleground Over Employees’ Rights to Privacy and Employers’ Rights to Intervene. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 10(4), 263-270.

Mainiero, L.A., and Jones, K.J. (2013). Sexual Harassment vs. Workplace Romance:

Social Media Spillover and Textual Harassment in the Workplace. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 27(3), 187-203.

Mainiero, L.A., and Jones, K.J. (2013). Workplace Romance 2.0: Developing a Communication Ethics Model to Address Potential Sexual Harassment from Inappropriate

Social Media Contacts Between Coworkers. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 114,


Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology. (2012). Romance in the Office is

Common Occurrence. Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://www.siop.org.

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