A Valentine’s Day Sermon: Why Office Relationships Are Self-Destructive

Editor’s Note: Although I mentioned this Valentine’s post from last year earlier this week, I have had a number of readers ask if we could repost it again. We can, and here is is with a Happy Valentine’s Day greeting from TLNT. May all your workforce romances end without a lawsuit. 

Every year around February 14, just like clockwork, the workplace-oriented polls, surveys and so-called experts with some insight or opinion about Valentine’s Day and office romance come out of the woodwork.

They always seem to focus on two issues: the numbers of people who have romantic relationships with co-workers, or, the inherent problems that arise when people do so.

This year is no different. Here are just a few of the ones that landed in my in-box:

  • Vault.com’s 7th Annual Office Romance Survey (touted in the subject line of their e-mail as “Cupid in the Cubicle”) found that “almost 60 percent of respondents admitted to having participated in some form of office romance.” Fun fact from this survey: although 33 percent of those surveyed admitted to actually having a tryst (yes, you know what that is) in the office, only 4 percent says they were caught in flagrante delicto at work.
  • CareerBuilder’s annual office romance survey reports that “approximately 40 percent of workers (37 percent) say they have dated someone they worked with over their career” while nearly one in five (18 percent) report dating co-workers at least twice in their career. Fun fact from this survey: 30 percent report they went on to marry a person they dated in the office. There’s no data on how those marriages fared.
  • CareerBuilder Canada’s annual Valentine’s Day survey found that only “31 percent of workers say they have dated someone they work with over their career” … with one in ten (11 percent) dating co-workers at least twice during their career. Fun fact from this survey: Canadians seem to be a lot smarter (and more restrained) about diddling around with co-workers than their American counterparts are.

No longer carry the same stigma

So, what insight can we glean from these various surveys about romance at work?

Office romance“Workplace relationships no longer carry the stigma they once did,” says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, because some 65 percent of workers in the CareerBuilder U.S. survey said they aren’t concerned about keeping their romance a secret.

And she added: “Especially in this economy, workers are spending more time in the office and the lines between working and socializing are being crossed. Workers need to keep it professional under all circumstances, though, to ensure that the quality of their work is not negatively impacted.”

The problem with all of these surveys is simple: they tell you what anyone who has spent just about any time in the workforce already knows. Yes, people in the workplace have romantic relationships, as they have had since humans started working in organized groups together, and they probably will continue to do so as long as we live on this planet.

The question in my mind is never about WILL people have relationships at work, because we know they will no matter how foolish or self-destructive that course of action might be. No, the question that should trouble any manager or savvy HR professional is this: WHY do so many people carry on relationships in the office when they know how dangerous and troublesome they can be?

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All too often, office romances go bad

I’ve written about this many times in the past, and here is the gist of it:

Office romances have always been part of the equation in any workplace since the dawn of time, and there’s no evidence that the problem has gotten appreciably better or appreciably worse. Yes, sometimes office romances go bad, but the trend The New York Times was touting back in 2007 was to not get too worried or worked up about co-workers dating.

I certainly understand that very pragmatic viewpoint, but my own opinion on office romance hasn’t changed — hype, trends and surveys notwithstanding. It’s a bad idea. That’s because, in my experience, they go bad all too often. And, spoiled office romances leave the participants — and the co-workers around them, who have to live with the bitter, sometimes litigious aftermath — much worse off as a result.”

My perspective on this comes from having to deal with the consequences when members of my staff had an office fling that turned sour, as so many of them do. This happened more times than I care to admit, and although each one had it’s own unique set of circumstances, they all share one common characteristic — they were a mess for everyone who had to deal with the ugly aftermath. Here’s one specific example that may give you taste of the problem:

One time, I was managing the news desk of a major metropolitan newspaper. Two of my assistant news editors got involved, and everyone who worked with them knew it. In fact, they could talk about little else. Complicating the matter was this: both of my assistants were married to other people in the newsroom. One of them was married to the sports editor, a large, intimidating fellow who could be extremely nasty when mad or drunk.

Not only was the affair distracting to everyone else in my department, but it had the potential of becoming violent if the sports editor ever found out. I had to deal with it, but how? I enlisted two other editors to help. The plan was to sit down one of my two assistants (the male), and give him three reasons to end the affair, listed in this order.

1. If he didn’t end it, his career growth would probably be over.

2. If he didn’t end it, his wife would likely find out and divorce him.

3. If he didn’t end it, the large and intimidating sports editor would likely find out and probably kill him.

Guess what? He laughed at reason #1 and shrugged off reason #2. Reason #3, however, got his attention. He ended the affair the next day.”

Dumb, foolish, and self-destructive

Not everyone agrees with me on this, of course. Many like to argue that you should expect adults to deal with such matters in a mature manner, but my experience is that the people touting that line of thinking have never had to deal with an office romance going terribly bad.

There’s an old workplace truism that bears repeating and remembering: The smarter you are, the dumber you’ll seem when you do something foolish.

Getting involved sexually with people you work with is about as foolish, dumb and self-destructive as it gets. Today, on yet another Valentine’s Day, that’s a message I wish more workers would remember.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.