Employers Should Eye Workplace Romance

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
Illustration by Monica Seaberry

The arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak may be an extreme example of an office crush gone awry, but it nonetheless highlights some real concerns for employers regarding workplace romance.

Managers must balance respect for staff privacy with vigilance for signs that a personal relationship might be jeopardizing the productivity or safety of their employees, workplace experts said.

"They want to make sure nothing escalates to the level of this situation," said Mimi Moore, an employment lawyer at Bryan Cave in Chicago. But "there's a line that employers have to draw in terms of getting too involved in people's personal lives."

Police charge that Nowak tried to kidnap and murder Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, a perceived rival for the affections of fellow astronaut William Oefelein, according to news reports. NASA is investigating whether there were warning signs and whether changes are needed to the space agency's policies and procedures.

Nowak had a love letter to Oefelein in her car, and said they had "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship," according to police. In a request for a restraining order against Nowak, Shipman called Oefelein her boyfriend, news reports said.

Love triangles and spurned romances constitute the largest concern for employers.

"When the ship hits the rocks, you need to be prepared to keep a close eye on it," said Mike Rode, a Cleveland-based lawyer at the search firm Management Recruiters International Inc. "That's the big jackpot area of liability."

The nightmare scenario for employers is a relationship that began consensually, but turned sour. If a former lover won't take no for an answer, it can constitute sexual harassment. Or, if friction between exes causes the company to transfer or fire someone, that can lead to a discrimination or wrongful termination claim, Rode said.

While it might be tempting to prohibit interoffice romance, that would probably just push office lovers into secrecy, making it harder for the employer to detect signs of problems that might affect the workplace.

"People don't even follow the dress code," so they're not going to obey a dating ban, said Barbara Pachter, a Cherry Hill, N.J., business etiquette expert and author of "New Rules (at) Work."

Indeed, as work hours have climbed in recent decades, more and more people are meeting romantic partners and spouses at their jobs. About 40 percent of employees have had an office romance at some point in their careers, according to a 2005 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

"It's inevitable for there to be workplace romances, and a flat-out prohibition is unreasonable in light of what we know occurs," said Marni Helfand, associate general counsel for staffing firm Hudson, based in Chicago. "The more common policy and/or practice is that companies do not permit individuals that report to one another to be engaged in a romantic relationship."

Still, more than 70 percent of organizations had no formal policies dealing with romantic liaisons between employees, and only 9 percent forbade dating, the SHRM survey said.

Employers' overarching legal responsibility is to provide a safe work environment that is free from harassment, said Anna Segobia Masters, a partner at Winston & Strawn in Los Angeles.

Companies should implement a strong policy against harassment and educate staff about it. There should be multiple avenues for employees to report alarming, disruptive or potentially violent behavior to management, Moore said.

"The best safeguard against these problems is to have people report things as soon as possible," she said, adding that when violence arises in the workplace, people often say they thought something about the perpetrator was "off."

Once policies and reporting mechanisms are in place, managers must enforce them and respond quickly to red flags.

When a complaint or concern arises, the first step is to sit down with affected employees. It's important to avoid any overly personal questions, Masters said.

"I'm going to focus on the behavior and the conduct and not speculate about the cause," she said.

For instance, a boss can express concern about slamming doors, shouted conversations or distracted behavior. Ask for the worker's side of the story and any explanation. Suggest resources for help, such as counseling through an employee assistance program.

Give the employee a clear message that professional conduct is still expected. "We're not here to solve your personal life, and if you bring it to the workplace there will be ramifications," Masters said.

Supervisors should continue to monitor the situation closely. If complaints continue or escalate, discipline, suspension or even termination might be required.

But there's only so much the employer can do especially in a case like Nowak's, in which the alleged assault occurred in Orlando, Fla., nearly 1,000 miles from her Houston workplace.

"At the end of the day, if you've got an aberrant personality involved, (preventing problems) may be impossible," Rode said. "If you've got an astronaut who's willing to put on a diaper and drive across the country to confront the other paramour, it may be an impossible situation to head off."

This story was originally published Thursday, February 8, 2007.