By Rachel Beck, AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — It's natural to find love at work. It's where people spend most of their time.
But an office romance can be risky for the lovebirds and the companies they work for.
Many employers have rules to ensure that the dating game doesn't affect the bottom line. They're concerned that distracted sweethearts will fall behind in their work. They're also concerned that a relationship that goes sour could lead to sexual harassment charges.
Some companies prohibit romantic relationships altogether. So, an employee who falls in love could get fired.
With Valentine's Day ahead, love is in the air. Here are five things every employee should know about workplace romances:
There isn't one way to define a relationship. Everyone has a different view, including your employer.
Some bosses believe a one-time fling after the annual holiday party counts as a relationship, especially if a supervisor and subordinate are involved. Others might argue that it doesn't matter unless there's a longer-lasting courtship.
Employees may contend that what they do in their personal lives shouldn't be their employer's business. But it can be if it presents a financial or legal risk to the company, says Michael Casey, a partner at the Miami law firm Epstein Becker & Green.
"The way employers see relationships at work focuses on the legal and morale issues. They worry about charges of favoritism and harassment," Casey says.
The concern is that office romances can lead to workplace distractions, and not just for the lovers. Co-workers may complain if a colleague who's involved with a supervisor gets a promotion or is given coveted assignments. The resentment is likely to have an impact on teamwork and productivity.
KNOW THE RULES
Many companies try to create rules for how far workplace social connections can go.
"Employers have to recognize that people meet at work," said Michael Hanlon, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm Blank Rome. "But they don't want anyone to feel pressure to be in a relationship".
Most worrisome: When a boss wants to become involved with a lower-ranking employee, or does begin a relationship.
Those relationships may be consensual, but Hanlon points out it may also be difficult for an employee to say no to a boss' advance without fearing some kind of retaliation.
Many companies avoid the problem by banning bosses from dating anyone at a lower rank.
Those that allow dating might require employees to disclose when they are in relationships. At Goldman Sachs Group Inc., you have to tell your manager if you are involved with a co-worker, spokesman Gia Moron said. If you don't and the relationship is discovered, you risk being fired.
Some companies take the disclosure of an office romance a step further with the use of so-called love contracts. That's a legal document that both employees must sign declaring that the relationship is consensual. It may also lay out the company's sexual harassment policy.
Once an employer is told about a relationship, managers could then decide to move one employee to another division in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest that could come from having the couple working together.
BE ADULT ABOUT IT
Co-workers who are having a relationship need to be circumspect. That means no giggling in the break room or making eyes at each other across the office.
Even if your boss and co-workers know you're together, you still need to be discreet. You don't want anyone complaining to management that they can't work with you because you're being too touchy with your mate or aren't acting professionally.
A survey sponsored by the work-life consulting firm Workplace Options found that 44% of the 623 respondents had observed other romantic relationships or acts of romantic affection at work. And more than a third of those who witnessed the romance said it made them uncomfortable or affected their work.
Andrea Holland met her boyfriend when she interviewed him two years ago for a job at public relations firm Access Communications. The attraction was immediate.
After three months of working together on the same team, they began dating. They kept their relationship quiet. They would walk into work at separate times, and take the stairs to leave, instead of walking through the main lobby.
"I told him I wasn't going to go out to lunch with him every day," said Holland, who is now 25. "I wanted to be professional at work."
It paid off. A year into their relationship, they told their bosses, who already had sensed they were together. The couple suggested that one of them should consider leaving the firm. Their bosses said no.
Instead, they were put on separate teams, and sit across the office from each other.
Relationships can be great when you're in them, but a disaster if they blow up. And the disaster can extend to your job.
It's hard to focus on work if you have to see your former mate each day. That can affect productivity and morale — yours and that of your co-workers, who may sense the animosity between you. There's also a risk that a scorned mate will sabotage a former lover's work or professional reputation.
"There is a very clear dark side to relationships at work going south," said Donna Flagg, founder of the human resources consulting group, the Krysalis Group. "Everyone becomes vulnerable if the romance doesn't work out, and that can really hit the business."
Falling in love at work can be a good thing, for the employees and their employers.
That's just the way Holland sees it. Both she and her mate have gotten promotions since their romance started — she's now a senior account executive and he's an account executive.
"When people are in positive relationships at work, they truly enjoy work. They work harder. They stay longer," Flagg said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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