Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Mixing business with pleasure: How to navigate fraternization in the workplace


By Keshia McEntire


Most people want to have positive interactions with their coworkers, but what happens when professional relationships become more than friendly? Many experts see dating coworkers as flirting with trouble. The fear of office gossip, drops in productivity and sexual harassment lawsuits have caused many businesses to create policies against office romance. Despite this, according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, one out of four employees say they have been in or are currently involved in a workplace romance.

We decided to talk to an expert to learn the pros and cons of mixing business with pleasure. Cathy Johnson is a human resource professional with Tilson. Her job duties include providing guidance to clients regarding employee relations matters, as well as assistance with handbook and policy writing.


Indiana Minority Business Magazine: Before we get started, I thought it would be a good idea to define fraternization in the workplace.

Johnson: My definition of fraternization would be any relationship between individuals or groups. This could include romantic or platonic relationships. It could be between employees or with clients, vendors and suppliers.


One out of four employees say they have been in or are currently involved in a workplace romance. Why do you think workplace romances are so common?

Workplace romances are common because most of us spend eight or more hours of each day with our colleagues. It is natural for relationships to form as a result of the long periods of interaction between individuals.


According to a study done by the Society For Human Resource Management, the percentage of organizations with written workplace romance policies has doubled since 2005. Some employers have a written policy regarding fraternization, while others still share their views with employees verbally. A small number of employers have even asked employees to sign “love contracts” prohibiting them from romantic relationships. What do you think is the best way for an employer to express their views on fraternization to their employees?

I think the best way for businesses to express their views on fraternization is to establish a code of conduct for all employees. Companies should determine what behaviors they want to prevent, align policies in accordance and make sure those policies are well communicated. For example, if a company is fearful of what could happen in the event of a bad breakup, like arguments, harassment or physical abuse, then policies prohibiting those types of actions should be created and communicated to employees with an emphasis on how it could apply to personal relationships with coworkers.


What are the pros and cons of having written policies that prohibit fraternization? Do you think these types of policies are beneficial and, if so, in what ways? If not, why are they ineffective?

Policies prohibiting workplace romances are challenging, because you are attempting to control people’s feelings. Trying to stop such relationships from taking place can be a futile approach, so it is better to simply address the concerns that can come from having personal relationships at work and have policies that address these concerns. Some of those concerns are discrimination, harassment and violence in the workplace.


Within a business environment, who should be the most concerned about office romances? Is it only the concern of the boss or supervisor?

Everyone can be impacted, so it is a shared concern. Managers or supervisors should certainly be concerned if the employees’ performance decreases or if individuals are subjected to inappropriate behavior or a hostile work environment. The gossip that can develop can be a distraction for coworkers, as well.


How should employers address relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate?

I would advise that a policy is written to express that employees who have any type of relationship cannot be in direct reporting positions; this must include family and friendships, as well.


In what ways can non-romantic relationships between employees become a problem in a workplace?

It could be favoritism, a decrease in productivity due to constant socializing or fighting. It is basically everything that could happen as a result of a romantic relationship that may go sour.


Do you have any tips on what behavior is and is not appropriate in the workplace?

In my opinion, employees have to provide great customer service both internally and externally. They should have a good work ethic, be respectful of all people and create an environment that is professional, inclusive and diverse. Any actions that contradict these values are inappropriate.

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