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Handling romance in the lab.

Experts tell us the workplace is one of the best places to meet a significant other, but on-the-job romances can wreak havoc for managers. Here's what and what not to do.

IT'S ONLY NATURAL that some people who work together will become romantically involved. Most of us would agree that shared work interests, observing and supporting each other under fire, and interacting on a daily basis, provide a stronger foundation for a significant relationship than casual meetings in singles bars or nightclubs. In fact, the work arena is one of the best places to meet a future spouse.

Nevertheless, romances at work can wreak havoc for lovers and their bosses. This is particularly true if 1) one of the duo is married to someone else, 2) the duo is a boss-subordinate combination, 3) one of the duo is romantically involved with a third person on the job, creating a romantic triangle, or 4) the organization has a policy that prohibits such activities.

When a romance becomes common knowledge, people expect the boss to do something about it.|1~ This is somewhat of a paradox because there is another strongly held belief that managers should not get involved in the private lives of their subordinates.|2~

* Complications. Various complications can result from on-the-job romance including:

Poor time management. The romantic couple may become prone to taking long lunches and breaks or may work hours more suited to each other than the department. Also, they may simply become preoccupied with thoughts of each other rather than their work.

Disintegration of the team. The couple's interests and focus may shift from those of the team to those of each other. The affair may undermine team relationships. Tension may develop between the romantic couple and fellow workers, especially if their activities are frowned upon, or if the couple overhears others making remarks behind their backs. Sometimes the work group breaks into two factions, one supporting and the other condemning the affair.

Access to power. If the duo is a boss-subordinate combination, then colleagues may feel threatened by a coworker having gained access to a person of authority. There's also the issue of whether the coworker will abuse that access.

Drop in productivity. If time management suffers, chances are that productivity and quality will suffer as well, and not just in the romantic couple's work, but in the work of others in the lab who may waste time discussing the progress of the affair.

Emotional explosions. There is always the possibility of the couple bringing personal discussions to work with them and having those discussions turn into on-the-job quarrels or shouting matches. And if one of the duo is married to someone else, you risk the someone else storming onto the work scene. If the relationship becomes strained or ends, further disruptions may occur.

* Policies. Only a few organizations have specific written policies concerning romantic relationships at work. Those that do usually address the issue in one of the following ways:

* Romantic relationships at work are covered by sexual harassment policies.

* The company prohibits employment of spouses of employees.

* If a romantic relationship develops between two employees, one person must resign or be terminated.

* Two individuals romantically involved may not work in the same department.

* Approaches. There are a number of approaches that you, as a manager, can take with an on-the-job romance, depending on what kind of complications, if any, are resulting from the affair. A few possible scenarios follow to help guide you in your actions.

No action. You can make believe that nothing is happening and hope that it will stop. You can expect or hope that someone else will deal with the situation because either you don't know what to do or you want to avoid confrontation.

Punitive action. You can reprimand one or both of the parties involved by, for example, warning them to stop or be terminated or transferred.

Constructive action. Or you can take one of a number of constructive, compassionate actions, such as discussing the situation with both parties and focusing strictly on work performance.

If, for example, the affair is causing no problems with performance or relationships with fellow workers, both parties are single, and there's no existing organizational policy, do nothing.

If, on the other hand, the romance is an extramarital affair, you may want to alert and advise the couple to what you have heard being said in the laboratory about their affair. Often the parties think that they have effectively kept the affair secret. Admit that it is none of your business to interfere in their private lives, but as a friend you urge them to give serious consideration to what they are getting into. If there is a policy that prohibits on-the-job romances, warn them that they are treading on thin ice. When dealing with a clandestine relationship, expect the parties to vigorously deny that anything is going on.|3~

If there is no problem with performance or relationships with fellow workers and both parties are single, but there's a policy against such a relationship, review the policy with one or both parties. Make sure they understand the consequences if they persist.

If there's a problem with productivity, don't accuse the couple of having an affair. Focus exclusively on performance issues. Let them know their performance has been slipping and that it must return to expected levels.

Most experts recommend that such counseling be supportive rather than threatening and that you discuss the matter first with each person privately, and then with both parties together. If it is a vertical relationship, the major responsibility should rest with the higher-ranking person, and that person should be approached first.|1~

* Legal pitfalls. When one or both parties are fired or transferred, there's always the possibility that legal rebuttals will result. These actions can be especially hazardous if only the woman is dismissed, as it may be misconstrued as sexual harassment or discrimination. If you must resort to discharges or transfers, be sure your actions are supported by policy and that you enforce the policy equally between men and women.|1~

References

1. Westhoff LA. What to do about corporate romance. Management Review. 1986; 75(2): 50-55.

2. Warfield A. Co-worker romances: Impact in the work group and on career-oriented women. Personnel. 1987; 64(5): 22-35.

3. Mondy RW, Premeaux SR. People problems: The workplace affair. Management Solutions. 1986; 31(11): 36-39.

William O. Umiker, M.D., is professor of pathology at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Pennsylvania State University, Hershey, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:1088
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