Article: Office Romance and HR: The Objection

Employee Relations

Office Romance and HR: The Objection

The second of a three-part series that aims to explore the different approaches of HR, on Intra-Office Romance.
Office Romance and HR: The Objection

Remember Sashwat and Irene? The in-love couple at work who were relieved when they figured that the HR policies of their company won’t affect their intra-office romance. In the first part of this series, we had explored how, and why, HR can, and must, accept these relationships as natural, and instead of resisting them, make policies around them.  But what if the organisations follow a strict no-fraternisation and dating policy? How would things be different for Sashwat and Irene? 

When it comes to dating within the office, some employers prefer to simply prohibit the idea, to prevent several issues that could potentially come up in the future. The biggest red flags, from the employers’ perspective are of course, their business interests and legal interests:

Business Interests: When a supervisor and a subordinate enter a relationship, it is almost assumed that favouritism will be at play, which will lead to issues like loss of productivity and eventual decline of working morale, even of the co-workers. Additionally, there is a good chance that they will indulge in the relationship on company time, and intentionally withdraw from the group, socially, to become more secluded. This is true for two colleagues working at the same position, and ultimately leads to resentment in the team.

Legal Interests: The situation gets complicated if the romantic relationship ends, which is a tipping point for a wide range of legal problems, like sexual harassment claims, consent, and favouritism claims. Instances of supervisors coercing their subordinates into relationships, by the virtue of their position, are not new. Claims of a ‘hostile work environment’, or the relationship being non-consensual might follow. Even for colleagues on the same position, the end of the relationships hampers the team dynamics, affecting communication, even if for a short duration. This legal matter becomes an even messier situation, if the one of the two employees, or both, were indulging in extra-marital affairs.

Considering the above mentioned reasons, a wide majority of organisations choose to prohibit dating within the office. Usually, anti-fraternization policies are signed at the time of joining, where the new employee is informed about the hazards of dating within the office, and the organisation’s stand on the same. Such policies seek to clearly define the conduct which is allowed and forbidden, and differentiate between dating and socialising. In addition to this, the policy also requires immediate voluntary reporting of any such relationship to the HR and Management, in order to facilitate an appropriate action. These actions have an extreme range, for companies have been known to fire employees who violated the non-fraternisation policy, transfer them to another city, or simply let them off with a warning. It is for the same reason of ‘conflict of interest’ or ‘abuse of differential power’ that some organisations also prohibit dating employees from rival organisations. 

Internationally, especially in the USA, there has been an increase in the adoption of non-fraternisation policies by organisations since the 1990s. Since some US courts have allowed organisations to take a call on the issue independently, to save themselves the trouble and resources, organisations simply prefer to prohibit dating, or leave an extremely small elbow room for it to exist. Though several studies exist to show whether these policies are effective in preventing such relationships or not, they cannot be relied upon, for the biggest aspect of intra-office romance is secrecy. There is no telling how many employees are involved outside of the office, for many a times, months pass by, before either of them let their co-workers in on the development. The issue is of indispensable importance to a country like India, for several reasons:

  1. The Corporate Culture is growing: The corporate culture is still growing in India, and is set to stabilise in the next few years. It becomes imperative to tackle issues like office romance, on an organisational, industrial or even legal level, as the corporate sector will continue to increasingly employ people.

  2. A majority of the workforce is young: A major part of the Indian workforce is below 30 years of age and lives alone in an alien city, which makes them susceptible to intra-office romance. Studies have shown that younger people are more likely to enter such relationships than people beyond 35.

  3. Information and Knowledge Gap: The regular workforce is ignorant on the repercussions of inter-office romance, and so is the HR and Management. Since the professional culture is in its nascent stage, and intra-office dating is an issue which no one really predicts, until it happens, HR and Management often plead ignorance when it spills over into a sticky situation. A large information gap exists in the industry which must be consciously tackled.

  4. Increased cases of sexual harassment and abuse: In the last few years, the number of reported cases of workplace sexual harassment and abuse have grown, indicating that the swanky offices and plush complexes are not immune such events and situations. A clear policy on intra-office dating will remove the gray area between the two, and help the claimant to efficient redressal. 

Thus, even though it is not the most popular option, several organisations choose to implement non-fraternisation policies in their offices. This in no way might actually translate into employees refraining from indulging in romance, but it does instill a sense of fear, especially of losing the job, which for some, is a deterrent big enough. There is a need to address, and formulate suitable policies around intra-office romance, even if they are restrictive ones, according to Indian sensibilities, for these policies will go onto form a base for better employee behaviour and conduct tomorrow.

Stay Tuned for the Part 3 or the finale article of our Romance and HR series.

Part 1: Office Romance and HR: The Approval

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Topics: Employee Relations, Culture, Employee Engagement

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