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Are Organizations Unknowingly Creating the Perfect Playgrounds for Romance?

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Since the sacking of former CEO Dov Charney, American Apparel’s new CEO has taken drastic measures to ensure no ‘monkey business’ will occur between employees at its California-based headquarters. This new take is a consequence of the alleged harassment accusations held against the former CEO. In a bid to prevent future occurrences, the company has revised its ‘ethics code’. Clear prescribed guidelines spell out that ‘sexual advances, casual dating and/or committed relationships’ among its employees are not allowed. Explicitly, it bans relationships between managers and subordinates and any fraternization between employees who potentially could influence one another's terms of employment. It is worth asking the question whether organizations should stamp a ban on office romance?

American Apparel’s story is a typical example of how companies such as Staples, Delta Airlines, Lloyds of London have considered policies (in some shape or form) on personal relationships at work. This raises two important debates. Firstly, whether organizations are permitted or have the right to intervene in ‘love’, as the Human Rights Act 1998 gives everyone the right to a private life. Secondly, some would argue that office romances are common to working life.

A 2014 survey by CareerBuilder.co.uk of 1,000 full-time workers across different UK industries found that 39% reported having had intimate relationships with a co-worker, while 16% repeatedly did so. Three in ten of those relationships ended up marrying their office romancee. On the other hand, one in ten workers had to leave their job as a consequence of their romantic relationship. Those numbers may be understandable as employees are faced more and more with organizational demands, especially longer working hours. It is no surprise then that organizations become a breeding ground for intimate relationships to flourish.

How organizations contribute to the development of workplace romances can be explained by the psychological theories of attraction based on similarity. The law of attraction argues that we are drawn to those who are similar to us. This idea casts a novel light on the selection process. Employers tend to recruit individuals on the basis of person-organization fit, suggesting that the mere sampling of like-minded people could explain how the similarity and familiarity effects come into play so strongly at work. For example, all recruitment and selection practices involve the identification of the candidates’ values, beliefs or interests to match the culture of the given organization. As a result, jobs are often offered to candidates similar in mindset, educational attainment and background. This could hold the key to the development of attraction and recurrence of workplace romances.

As to the rights and wrongs of workplace romances, both scholars and industry leaders remain undecided. Some advocate that romance at work makes couples happier and more productive. One reason for the increase in productivity is that romantic couples are more eager to impress superiors. This is to compensate for their relationship due to a fear of stigma or being singled out. However, problems tend to surface when couples break up. When organizations do opt to prohibit workplace romances, it is usually under the pretext that such relations trigger either loss of productivity or favouritism. Naturally, organizations want to be vigilant that workplace romances do not interfere with the running of the organization. 

A clear conclusion is that to some extent the responsibility for workplace romances lies within the practices of organisations. Perhaps the introduction of ‘love contracts’ is the way forward. Outright banning them may be unwise, since human attraction is part of who we are. Thus, the central concern for organizations should not be to thwart relationships but acknowledge their existence. In doing so, organizations must find a fair balance in protecting their own interests whilst considering the human rights and wellbeing of their employees.