When David Geffen, an assistant manager at a direct-marketing firm north of Toronto, decided he wanted to date a subordinate, he wasn’t going to let his company’s HR policies stop him. But rather than sneak around, Geffen took the matter to his boss before starting the relationship. “I told them, ‘I’m going to be dating her, so let’s work something out where it doesn’t interfere with our jobs,’” he says. “I had a feeling the manager was going to tell me not to date her. But I knew we could work things out.” And they did: Geffen’s future girlfriend began reporting to someone else. Two years later, they’re still a couple, and while neither is with the same company, they both left on good terms. Looking back, Geffen believes the situation was handled well. “If you restrict these things at work, people will just want to do them more.”
With more people delaying marriages until after they’ve started their careers, and work seeping ever deeper into our lives, workplace romances have become commonplace. In a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, 40% of employees reported having dated co-workers sometime in their career. No-nonsense attitudes like Geffen’s are more the rule today than the exception. And as employee mindsets change, managers are forced to adapt their approach as well. Nina Cole, a professor at Ryerson University with research expertise in human resources, has been tracking this shift. “Thirty years ago, when I started working, romances were strongly discouraged at work and had to be secret.” In many workplaces, such attitudes are today viewed as fussily out of date, she says. “Young people now would laugh if someone told them that their company prohibited relationships with co-workers.”
In her research, Cole set out to examine how younger employees perceive mixing love and work. “My study found that people think a relationship between co-workers—peers on the same level—is the couple’s own business. They weren’t disapproving,” she reports.
But HR policies haven’t always caught up with corporate cultures and staff attitudes, and that poses a management risk. Cole suggests that companies need to have rules around office romance, but not outright bans. Policies should address what constitutes inappropriate behaviour (for example, vindictive acts if the relationship ends) and any rules regarding managers dating subordinates. They should also indicate what action will be taken if a problem arises.
It’s important that managers are consistent in how they deal with staff relationships rather than addressing them on a complaints-only basis, which is common, says Cole. And they should discreetly remind couples of those policies at the start of a relationship, before private conflicts manifest themselves at the office. Cole suggests asking the dating staffers whether one of them would like to change departments. She cautions, however, that “it would not go over well if one of the two were forced to work somewhere else.”
Things get dicier when the dating colleagues have unequal power. Kevin Burns, a Calgary author and workplace expert, says that in cases of a supervisor dating down, the subordinate should be assigned a new manager right away. “Any boss that’s engaging in a relationship and trying to keep it quiet will inevitably cause office gossip, affect morale and make employees wonder what else he or she is hiding,” he says. Besides, he notes, “If you’re the jilted lover of your boss, can you get an unbiased performance review?”
But just as employees must weigh the career risks of entering into office relationships, managers should assess the risk of pushing talent away with overly strict policies. One young professional who works for a Toronto TV production and distribution company and asked not to be named laughed at the idea of an office that prohibited dating. “That seems so archaic,” he says. “There’s a lot of romance in my office. I wouldn’t even know where to meet a girl if not for work!”