Cupid's Cubicle

With the evolving prospects of current and potential future lockdowns, Settlement Services industry office culture may at times seem a little different. Special events such as birthdays, or holiday get-togethers, and every casual Friday in between remind us that an office is so much more than just a professional space. Particularly during this time of year, who doesn’t miss the sight of heart shaped chocolate boxes, or the gentle waft of freshly cut roses drifting between cubicles. With fictional representations of office romantic relationships like Pam and Jim from The Office or Sam and Diane from Cheers, Valentine’s Day often allows us to observe cute couples from cubicles to corner offices.

Despite the joy they can bring, and often highlighted by frequent examples of office-based romance in media, office flings have actually been trending downwards over the past 10 or so years. Valentine’s Day activities can offer a great heat signature for the amount of office romances in play and in their 2018 annual Valentine’s day survey, Career Builder noted that office relationships hit a 10-year low.  The survey, conducted by Harris Poll, observed 809 full-time employees from various industries and various sized companies in December 20, 2017, showed the downward trend.

In the aftermath of highly publicized controversies and of HR policy modification nationwide, it doesn’t necessarily come as a shock that amorous office relationships are down. With a focus on maintaining appropriate power dynamics in the workplace, the fact that 22% of the 800+ employees studied had dated their boss is notable. However, the study’s benchmark statistics such as “31% of workers who started dating at work ended up getting married” and “41% of workers had to keep their romance a secret” suggest that long term workplace relationships are still happening in a significant way.

A similar survey conducted in 2019 by Vault agreed with Career Builder, particularly noting that only 30% of professionals 18-21 years old had engaged in a workplace romance, compared to 72% of professionals 50+ years old. This suggests that compared to the say the 1970’s, all workplace romantic relationships are significantly down. However, even within a rapidly changing corporate world, there may be a generational divide concerning lunch dates in the breakroom.

An easy out is to blame millennials, who with the rise of easily accessible dating apps, spend more time looking for meaningful romantic relationships outside of the workplace. To be fair to the 20-something-burgening professionals, the proliferation of dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge has made internet dating less of a taboo. In addition, there is another possibility for a lower percentage of active office relationships: HR Policy.

Dana Wilkie, a writer for SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), arguably the leading voice in American HR policy, lays out the effect of said policy on the ‘Forbidden Love’ between superiors and subordinates. She wrote:

“Almost every respondent whose company had a workplace-romance policy (99%) said love matches between supervisors and subordinates are not allowed. That’s up from 80% in 2005 and 64% in SHRM’s 2001 Workplace Romance survey. Almost half of these policies (45%) forbid romances between employees of significantly different rank, a significant jump from 16% in 2005.”

This means that for the sake of corporate romance, certain potential matches have been all but eliminated. From SHRM’s perspective,

“these prohibitions are designed  to protect the company from sexual harassment lawsuits if the relationship ends and the subordinate claims the supervisor or higher-ranking colleague is making unwanted advances.”

In addition to protecting the company itself, these relatively stringent policies are intended to protect superior and subordinate from harassment, coercion, and calls of favoritism. Moreover, SHRM offers a free Employee Dating Policy downloadable document available on their website that appropriately lays out an 11-point procedure covering recommended policy. As the document may seem fairly complex and written for HR professionals trained and educated in the magical arts of corporate lingo, here is our breakdown and Top Three Takeaways for the average employee or employer from a variety of SHRM resources:

1.      SHRM recommends being upfront about relationships between same level employees. Essentially, not acknowledging that workplace relationships happen encourages secrecy which can further exacerbate problems.

2.      Extremely restrictive policies between similar level employees (non-supervisor/subordinate) typically don’t work very well. Furthermore, Zero tolerance policies regarding workplace romance often bring about secrecy and insecurity in the office space. Again, not a great situation to encourage.

3.      Workplace relationships happen. Not in every office, but in many of them. Just because workplace romances are not as commonplace as they once were, every company should have clear guidelines and open discussion policies for the betterment of all parties. Translation…Be Prepared! Make sure your employees know the policy, make the guidelines in clear and common language, and be prepared to have the ‘relationship conversation’ and appropriate protocols to accompany it.

So, what does this talk of office love even mean? Well, we are essentially all living in a new world of workplace relationships, and like any set of evolving business policy, there are pros and cons of workplace potential romances.

One appealing pro is maybe observing the classic Hallmark-esque romantic comedy in real time and finding common ground both socially and professionally so everybody…involved…wins.  One con is potentially dealing with the adverse consequences and sometimes difficult conversations surrounding interoffice love relationships and dealing with the potential loss of a good team member due to a romance gone bad.

Frankly, in the modern world of Zoom dates and dating app “swiping”, by being communicative, transparent, and taking the requisite steps to help ensure your team of Settlement Services Professionals are properly trained in healthy workplace relationship policy, it is possible to encourage and even enhance productivity without completely forbidding office love interests. With the widely available Human Resource best practices, there are resources available to make the best of Cupid’s cubicle. One simple takeaway of this Valentine’s Day Blog: inter-office romantic relationship scenarios are manageable if proactively governed by well-thought-out guidelines as long as said relationships are maintained by transparent conversations around preestablished and safe policy.