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updated 4/6/2004 6:13:42 PM ET 2004-04-06T22:13:42

It’s one of the most sensitive situations a business owner can face: two employees involved in a romantic relationship. It can be especially difficult in a very small company with very few workers.

Many people caution against office romances because such alliances can lead to discomfort for other employees who don’t want to see public displays of affection. They can also create a tense atmosphere if the couple is having a fight or the relationship ends badly. At the extreme, especially if the relationship involves a supervisor and a subordinate, it can mean sexual harassment charges.

Professionals who advise companies on employment matters say the owner, upon learning of the relationship, needs to talk to the couple.

“You should immediately meet with those people and set some guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior,” said Arlene Vernon, a human resources consultant in Eden Prairie, Minn. “You need to tell them, ’This is not your place for any of the fooling around that might go on — sneaking hand-holdings, hugging in the corner, passing little notes.”’

But you shouldn’t try to forbid the couple from having the relationship.

As lawyer John Robinson puts it, “You can’t stop biology.” And Vernon said that trying to force an end to a relationship can create an unpleasant atmosphere for everyone, including other employees who wouldn’t want similar interference in their personal lives.

She suggests telling the couple, “I’m glad you met and that things are going well, but this is what I expect in the workplace.”

Robinson, senior employment lawyer with Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa, Fla., said owners should also set expectations for the couple in the event of a breakup. He recommended telling them, “If this ever becomes a situation where one or the other of you becomes uncomfortable with it, we want to know about it so we can take action to continue with you and the company being successful.”

A workplace romance doesn’t have to be between two employees to cause problems.

Julie Swenson, owner of Abbas Public Relations in Minneapolis, found that out when she entered into a contract with her fiance’s father, and her relationship ended suddenly shortly afterward. She said she found it very hard to talk to her client, and her receptionist was caught in the middle.

“I was constantly hiding from calls. She felt it was always a gamble to put somebody through to me,” Swenson recalled.

Swenson managed to get the work done well for the client, but she also felt that it wasn’t her best effort.

Even when a relationship goes well, chances are the business will be affected at some point.

At Hollywood, Fla.-based firm O’Connell & Goldberg Public Relations, two employees kept their relationship a secret for quite some time from their co-workers and bosses, and they remained circumspect even after it became public. It didn’t cause any outward problems.

But after the couple married, and decided to move away, it meant the company lost two employees, a big deficit in a 14-person firm.

“We had to lose two good people because of marital reasons,” co-owner Barbara Goldberg said.

Goldberg’s other complaint was having been kept in the dark. “I would have liked to have known about it before I found out,” she said.

But that can be hard, especially when a couple is trying to preserve their privacy. Still, a business owner needs to be alert to the possibility that workers might be romantically linked because of the potential problems. As Vernon put it, “when the relationship falls apart, the impact on the organization is rarely positive.”

A potentially serious situation is when one of the employees involved is in a supervisory position. That can raise concerns about preferential treatment. If the subordinate/lover gets better pay, benefits or assignments than co-workers, it can breed resentment.

And when such a couple breaks up, Robinson said, “you can see a lot of sudden charges of abuse or harassment.”

Again, a business owner needs to talk to the couple once the relationship becomes apparent. In the event of a breakup, the owner should meet separately with both people, document what is discussed and perhaps have a witness as well, Vernon said

As with many other business situations, owners dealing with office romances might want to consider getting some advice from a professional about how to handle the problems that might occur.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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