Why steamy office romances heat everyone up and threaten value

Valentine’s Day conjures up all sorts of images — ranging from floating hearts to broken dreams, from joyous, out-in-the-open public displays of affection to slipping out quietly for a clandestine rendezvous. Footsie and holding hands under a table. A smooch here or there.

What’s the harm?

Oh, wait. You mean in the office? Well, that may be a different story.

Vault.com reports that 58% of adults have engaged in a workplace romance. On one hand, this statistic doesn’t shock me in the least as work is where we spend the majority of our waking hours. On the other hand, it presents an HR landmine for everyone involved — and I mean everyone.

I speak from personal experience. (No, dear. If you are reading this, I am not in the 58%.) Years ago, I navigated a workplace romance situation that could have blown up big time for the employees and/or the employer involved.

The two employees were both married at the time — to someone else. There was a supervisory relationship. They were both exceptionally talented and, romantic entanglement aside, valuable to the organization and with bright futures.

The two worked very hard to keep the relationship concealed. However, they were a part of a close-knit group of co-workers and the spark between them was hard to ignore. Add to that the seemingly clever strategy of heading out to and returning from lunch at different — but really the same — time, one using the elevator and the other the stairs. People knew. Of course they did. For a while, they were willing to roll their eyes and look the other way. That is until the close-knit group was celebrating the marriage of another co-worker and one thing led to another at the party. The water cooler chatter after that was heated, to say the least, which is where I got brought into it.

The company did not have a policy around interoffice relationships per se. The supervisory relationship was clearly an HR time bomb, even before the advent of #MeToo. The higher-ups were up in arms and, well, hopping mad. They expected better of these individuals. Believe me, those were not fun “Houston, we have a problem” conversations when I had to bring company leaders in under the hood on this sensitive matter.

At the same time, both employees were people I and many others in the organization cared about, with talents the company needed. Outside my sphere, there were families impacted. This was delicate.

There were classic choices from an employer position ranging from ignoring it (unwise) to picking a side and bouncing the supervisor and potentially alienating the remaining employee (and we all lose). Some felt it was a black-and-white decision as to what should happen — a solution I found to be win-lose at best and lose-lose at worst. I wanted to arrive at a conclusion that reinforced the value and values of the company: one of respect, integrity, employee development, and retention.

We found our way through honest and frank discussions with both employees, their supervisors, and other influencers within the organization. There were, of course, consequences for the individual that was in the senior position in the relationship, including reassignment of some responsibilities and, while not explicitly stated, some loss in momentum on the promotion track that person was on due to the lapse of managerial judgment. The other person involved mostly suffered embarrassment. In the end, both employees were retained.

I share this story because I believe that situations like this prove whether a company drives or squanders value. A company of value is attractive and strives to be so in all that they do. An attractive, high valuation company certainly has strong financials and a solid future, but it also has much more that is intangible. How it treats its employees in situations such as this matters deeply to whether the company will continue to attract and retain great talent, even in the face of certain HR risk.

How we handled the situation was a career life and death matter for two people, yes, but it mattered deeply to the rest of the organization as well.

The situation called for a solution that not only dealt with an HR matter but also simmered the tight-knit group down. At the end of the drama, this group of up-and-coming leaders would remember how their friends and colleagues were treated, how management responded to safeguard confidentiality, and ensure there weren’t harassment or discrimination incidents. They would either feel safe in knowing that when trouble brewed, whether office-romance related or not, they would be treated with respect and value. And when it was their turn to lead, how to do so with integrity and respect themselves.

Let’s play out the flip side of the tape. The members of this tight-knit group were, in today’s term, “influencers.” They represented the energy and much of the dynamic culture for the staff overall. Culture was something that truly differentiated the company in the marketplace. Their energy, like all energy — whether positive or negative — was contagious. Had the response been knee-jerk or draconian, we could have alienated this core group of young leaders. Staff turnover would have extended beyond the two lovebirds. Morale, which was already low because of the fluff up, would have plummeted further. We risked losing a competitive edge that brought measurable cultural and financial value to the company.

Honestly, I hadn’t thought about that incident until talking with a friend who was recently reeling from her own experience with an interoffice romance. Her story didn’t conclude as well. The relationship ended badly, as did her employment situation. The hurt from the situation is still raw and yet she has a good attitude, seeking and leaning on what her tryst has taught her.

So, during this February’s celebration of Valentine’s Day, reflect on your relationships at work. Are you in a culture of integrity and respect? How would you navigate this situation if it confronts you? With nearly 60% of adults admitting having been a part of an interoffice romance at some point, chances are it’s happening in your company.

Let me know at msullivan@provenancehill.com — will you lead with values that build or tear down your company’s value?

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