Love in the workplace

Published by rudy Date posted on February 16, 2009

The generally accepted norm in the workplace when it comes to matters of the heart is that romantic relationships are not the company’s business.

Romantic relationships are personal in nature and business organizations cannot interfere with them, unless of course there are negative consequences that affect the workplace.

Many among us may secretly enjoy the occasional gossip about an office love affair gone awry, but I still have to meet a manager or supervisor who derived some form of enjoyment from being forced to manage the complications brought about by feuding lovebirds. I tell you, these kinds of problems are the worst.

I’ve met far too many human resource managers who would gladly volunteer to mow the company’s front yard lawn than serve as counselor, mediator, arbiter, or just plain conciliator for a bickering couple, particularly when there are third parties, in-laws, properties, financial problems, and yes, a child on the way in the picture. Arrggghh!

We all like—or want to—assume that if people expect to be trusted with major responsibilities related to their work, then they have to show some competence in being able to manage their personal affairs. As much as possible, we want to believe that since the people who are in the workplace are of legal age—with many of them close to retirement age, anyway—they should be in a better position to manage something that should be instinctive and intuitive.

After all, falling in love and being in a romantic relationship is hardly rocket science. It afflicts everyone after all – straight, gay, bisexual, tall, short, fat, cross-eyed, etc.

Unfortunately, all these are easier said than done. If there’s anything that I have learned from (ahem) many years as human resource management professional and counselor is that most everyone is not immune to irrational behavior when it comes to matters of the heart. There’s no need to quibble over the answer to Tina Turner’s impassioned refrain. What’s love got to do with it? My dear, everything!

To begin with, affairs of the heart are so much more complicated today than ever before.

In the past, some form of courtship over some period of time was the norm. Regardless of whether the courtship was overt or covert, the people involved tended to display some behaviors that would tick off other people, which would provide some kind of social pressure on the couple involved. Today, relationships end, some badly, others in horribly acrimonious ways even before anyone knew the couple involved was “going out” to begin with. The workplace is suddenly made hostage to a situation fraught with tension—sometimes open animosity— without having any clue as to the dynamics of the relationship. It’s like treating a problem without a clear diagnosis helped by some historical background.

And then there are the relationships that challenge social conventions: Same-sex relationships, sexual dalliances, extra-marital affairs. Let’s not even get started with relationships based on some political agenda such as those initiated with the sole purpose of jumpstarting one’s mobility up the corporate ladder, or those based on some economic, or horror of all horrors, neurotic agenda. The “usual” romantic relationships are often complicated enough despite social approval, think how much more difficult these “other relationships” are to manage.

The thing is, romantic relationships cannot really be legislated. Regardless of how many policies a company comes up with admonishing people to be responsible for their personal conduct, there’s just no way that many people can be made to deflect pheromones or suppress raging hormones.

Most studies point out a disturbing fact today: There are a lot of romantic relationships happening in the workplace. There are a lot of sexual relationships taking place in the workplace as well.

Why? The workplace today is not anymore the sterile place that it used to be. And sadly, we made it that way thanks to work-life balance, efforts to energize the workplace, programs designed to make the workplace safer and more inclusive, teamwork interventions designed to tear down interpersonal walls, etc. There’s also the increasing number of hours people spend in the workplace. Most studies show that people tend to spend more time in the workplace today. For example, with traffic conditions getting worse, forcing people to spend four-to-five hours of their day in traffic, the only time available for social networking is really at work.

Small wonder then that the workplace is now emerging as the place where one meets potential dates. If we come to think about it, where else? Thanks to advances in recruitment and selection strategies, workplaces now present a pool of possible dates already pre-selected—in possession of traits and qualities that are congruent to one’s own.

And given what we do to make the workplace fun, non-threatening, socially safe, and more accepting of diversity, it seems human resource management and business organizations have become matchmakers by default.

What are organizations supposed to do then? Be more creative, of course. A Reuters report last week cited a Japanese company that paid time off to employees after a bad break up. It’s called “heartache leave” and amusingly enough, the number of days varies according to age. “Not everyone needs to take maternity leave but with heartbreak, everyone needs time off, just like when you get sick,” the company CEO was quoted as saying. According to the Reuters report, staff aged 24 years or younger can take one day off per year, while those between 25 and 29 can take two days off and those older can take three days off because “women in their 20s can find their next love quickly, but it’s tougher for women in their 30s, and their break-ups tend to be more serious.”

Most companies now put in place a “love contract policy” designed to limit company liability from sexual harassment suits after a love affair between two consenting adult goes awry.

And even in Metro Manila, there are now love clinics that specialize in these matters. I guess it is a reflection of the times we live in that we now need to work so hard for sometimes even requiring professional help in the process for something that used to be -or supposed to be at least—a many-splendored thing. Belated Happy Valentines Day, everyone! — Bong C. Austero, Philippine Star

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