Workplace relationships are the “elephant in the room” in most boardrooms, sometimes influencing decisions either positively or negatively. There are obviously many happy-ever-after stories from the workplace.
In the same breath, however, there are agonising stories of individuals whose personal and/or family lives have been wrecked by relationships that developed in the office. This is why I think these relationships happen.
The mere exposure effect theory
This effect is psychological in nature, and through it, people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar. In our case, it implies that people get attracted to others due to being constantly exposed to one another.
In the 1960s, research by social psychologist Robert Zajonc demonstrated that simply exposing subjects to a familiar stimulus led them to rate it more positively than other similar stimuli which had not been presented.
Further research in the 1980s developed the two-factor theory which says that repeated exposure to a stimulus increases perceptual fluency, which means that repeated exposure to a person increases chances that you will understand them better. The second step is that perceptual fluency increases positive emotions towards the other person.
Workplace relationships easily sprout as people provide emotional support to each other, both for work-related and other personal challenges. Stressful situations make people vulnerable to emotional connections that may persist even after the stressful situations have been resolved.
This is the situation where people are forced into relationships in exchange for financial or other favours. Usually, it is those who hold positions of power that force the relationship. In other cases however, those deemed to be less powerful financially can use other resources such as physical attractiveness to buy power through relationships.
Do not be stiff
The workplace is where we spend the greater part of our lives and the people we work with form a huge part of our socio-economic support system. It would, therefore, be a wasted opportunity for anyone to spend this much time and not have healthy long-term relationships.
The risks involved, in my opinion, do not outweigh the benefits of being fully engaged with people you have no option but to be with every day. As the mere exposure effects suggest, you really do not have much option; you will be attracted to others just as others will be attracted to you. How you deal with that is what will make all the difference.
Let me throw a spanner in the works and reveal that this article is an excerpt from my lesson notes on HIV/Aids in the workplace. The subject looks at workplace relationships as risk factors.
In other words, they are occupational risks that one is exposed to because of what one does. This approach is meant to raise awareness of the fact that it can happen to any one of us and whether it ends up in the aisle or not, you should be careful.
Set personal standards
Awareness should help us to make decisions about how far to go with workplace relationships, depending on our circumstances. For instance, people who are already in relationships are likely to have different standards from those who are not.
Decisions also have to be made in advance concerning behaviour during work-related situations such as travel, company parties, and working after office hours. The same applies to relationships in which one is being forced or coerced.
Some of the most beautiful stories of workplace relationships are told by people who set standards and stood by them, not by those who go with the wind.
Even if the law does not forbid your relationship, or dictate how you conduct it, some organisations have their own strict policies on workplace relationships. For example, some companies frown upon one partner managing the other.
The safest option is to ask your Human Resource(HR) department if it has a policy in place, and to let your HR advisor know if you are in a workplace relationship.
Reasons you should avoid office romance
Before you embark on an office romance and fall head over heels for a coworker or, even worse, your boss, here are some reasons to be wary.
Love can be distracting
That “head in the clouds” feeling you get when you begin to fall in love can be distracting. Now, imagine not only daydreaming about the object of your affection while you are at work but also seeing them throughout the day. If you find yourself gazing across the office at your sweetheart instead of tending to your job responsibilities, your boss will likely have a problem with it.
Fights will follow you to work
You may, on occasion, go to bed or work angry at your partner. If you spend your day apart, that may not be a tremendous problem, and it may actually be helpful. Your bad feelings may blow over by the time you meet up at the end of the day.
However, if you share a workplace, you may find yourself feeling pretty uncomfortable every time you see your significant other.
Your coworkers will interfere
Your coworkers and your boss will have front row seats to your relationship. They will know when you argue and when you cannot stop staring dreamily at one another. From their point of view, watching your relationship play out on a daily basis, not to mention the awkwardness of a possible breakup, could make everyone uncomfortable. Some coworkers who have bad intentions could even use your romance against both of you. You do not want to become the subject of workplace gossip.
Hard to end it
Not every relationship is meant to last forever. Unfortunately, in many instances, one partner recognises that before the other. Under normal circumstances, you know it will be awkward if you run into your ex when you are out and about.
If you work together, you are guaranteed to see each other every day. To avoid ruining your work relationship, you may end up staying in an office romance longer than you would if you were just dating someone with whom you did not work.
Breaking up is hard to do
While it is wrong to stay in a bad romantic relationship, your fears that ending it will damage your working relationship are not unfounded. Breakups are challenging under most circumstances, but when you have to see your ex at work every day, it can be grueling. That is even true if both of you handle things in the best way possible. If things were to get too uncomfortable, you might be forced to look for a new job.
You won’t see your partner’s flaws
It is not unusual, or even necessarily a bad thing, that you neglect to see all the little flaws in a romantic partner, especially when a relationship is just beginning. Even as it progresses, you may see your significant other through proverbial rose-coloured glasses.
Your inability to notice your partner’s imperfections may keep your romance alive, but it can be harmful if your partner is also your subordinate. As a boss, you are responsible for making sure those you supervise—including those with whom you are romantically involved—are performing well.
Your feelings may keep you from recognising any problems or acknowledging any you do see. It may be difficult to give criticism if you think it could damage your relationship. If you are the subordinate instead of the boss, imagine being on the receiving end of negative feedback about your work from your romantic partner.
This article was first published in Daily Nation