Eggnog, mistletoe, and a late-night lip sync to that Mariah Carey song. Is there any better way to celebrate the holidays with people that you spend most of your time – your coworkers? It seems many employees, however, are sharing more than just Christmas cheer when they get together this time of the year. According to a survey conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive, 25% of Americans claim that they have had a sexual relationship as the result of a office holiday party. Those numbers are even higher among workers who are the least likely to be married, young adults between the ages of 18 and 34.
People are doing more than just having holiday flings. Forty-three percent of HR personnel report knowledge of current romances between employees at their firm, and 40% of people admit to having been involved in an office romance at some point in time.
Many of these romances lead to marriage. In fact, among couples that married between 2005 and 2012, meeting through work was the second most common way couples met (14%) trumped only by meeting on online dating sites (16%).
Those statistics have left some employers feeling more like Scrooge than Santa. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in corporate policies that punish employees for having on-the-job romances.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the number of firms with restrictions on sexual relationships between employees (not just at holiday parties) has more than doubled over the last decade – from 20% in 2001 to 42% in 2013. And 49% of HR professionals surveyed reported that within the last five years, someone at their organization has been fired, suspended, or formally reprimanded for a workplace romance.
Employers are cracking down on workplace relationships, and in the process are inflicting real costs on themselves and their workers. So there must be some evidence to justify the increasing involvement of firms in the private lives of their employees…right?
Not really. And, in fact, there are some good reasons why employers should be tolerant towards workplace romance.
Firstly, there is the question of basic principle. The right of consenting adults to have sex with whomever they want has come to be seen as one of our basic liberties, on par with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, throwing out Texas’ law banning gay sex, reflects a growing recognition by courts and lawmakers that what adults do in private is nobody’s business, unless someone can show there is a direct and tangible harm. That’s part of what it means to live in a free country.
Second, the workplace is one of the few places young, overworked, singles can find love. With more men and women staying single into their 30s than ever before and with employers demanding more and more of their employees time, firms that ban workers from engaging in relationships with one another are either depriving their employees a chance for personal happiness, or are forcing them to choose between happiness and professional success at that firm.
Finally, the evidence suggests that, on balance, office romances can make for happier and more productive workers. Banning workplace romances can also make it difficult to attract good employees and can lead to an atmosphere of paranoia. No one wants to work in an office in which gossip – the most common way in which HR professions learn of workplace romances – can cost you your job.
Of course, any firm that completely ignores the behavior of its employees exposes itself to legal risk, for instance in cases in which a supervisor is dating a subordinate. But even then, is the best solution to terminate one or both of the employees? This is what happens in 41% of cases. But there are plenty of less punitive solutions, such as transferring supervision to another manager.
Employers need to protect employees against harassment. But that is an argument for specific anti-harassment policies, and not an argument for the policies many firms adopt: blanket policies that govern consensual sexual relationships. Rather than trying to ban sex outright, the best solution is educating people on respect and consent in order to prevent complaints, and taking them seriously when complaints do arise.
We’re not telling you to go out and sleep with a co-worker this Christmas. Office romances can be tricky. And if you do succumb to temptation, at least stay off the copier. We all have to use that on Monday.
Neil McArthur is a philosopher specializing in ethical issues around sex and love. He works at the University of Manitoba. Marina Adshade uses research, human insight and economic analysis to unlock the mysteries behind our actions, thoughts and preferences regarding sexual relationships, gender, love and power. She shows that every option, every decision and every outcome in the realm of sex and love is better understood through economics. Dr. Adshade has a Ph.D. from Queen’s University and currently teaches economics at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.