Management intervention in workplace romances

by Dr. Lew Tek Yew and Pranay Rai

Hollywood had Mel Gibson doing it in the movie What Women Want and Bollywood had Priyanka Chopra doing it in Aitraaz. Chances are someone in your organisation is doing it too.

According to the various research reports, workplace romance between co-workers or between a superior and a subordinate happens more widely in organisations than people tend to think.

Folley and Powell (1999) defined workplace romance as ‘mutually desired romantic relationships between two people at work in which some element of sexuality or physical intimacy exists’.

However, very rarely are such relationships studied or researched in depth in relation to the study of Organisational Behaviour. This article examines whether managers should be concerned with the development of such a romance in the workplace.

According to a 2001 survey performed by the journal Sales and Marketing Management, 57% of the respondents witnessed such relationships between co-workers in their work departments. More than 50% revealed that they knew about relationships between bosses and subordinates and 48% of managers had friends who have dated their clients.

The ever increasing cases of organisational romance can be attributed to many factors.

Byrne and Neuman (1992) stated that without the ‘opportunity for interaction there can be no opportunity for attraction’. Since employees in organisations tend to work close to each other, there are potentially chances of attraction.

In the past decade, the significant increase of women in the workforce also contributes to the issue. In America, the proportion of women in the workforce has gone up from 42% in 1980 to 47% in the year 2000 and the proportion of female managers has gone up from a mere 27% in 1980 to 44% in 1987.

The figures in Asia are even more overwhelming, as the taboo on women involved in the workforce seems to be a thing of the past. Since there is now more uniformity of the two sexes in the workforce, there is an increased chance of relationships developing because of the time spent together.

The working hours of individuals have also been on the rise, resulting in such relationships at the workplace.

Many scholars believe that every relationship within an organisation always has an element of sexual harassment at some stage. This relationship can turn dangerous because chances of exploitation tend to be greater when there is an imbalance of power between the two individuals involved. Cases of sexual harassment are most common when the person with more authority looks for sexual or personal favours in turn of helping the person with lesser authority.

There are two basic reasons why the top management of an organisation needs to professionally handle the issue of workplace romance. Firstly, because it affects work professionalism and secondly, romantic relationships differ from other kinds of organisational relationships which have previously received scholarly attention.

As stated earlier, many organisations tend to ignore or avoid responding to this issue. One of the reasons is that many managers tend to be involved in workplace romance themselves, which stops them from taking any action or coming up with policies to control workplace romance.

Over the years, researchers have argued over managerial intervention concerning workplace romance. Mainniero (1989), Mondy and Premeaux (1986) and Powell (1986) debated that workplace romance should be of concern to managers only if it disrupts employee job performance.

One of the ways to control workplace romance is by forming policies which ban romance within the organisation or form reasonable guidelines for co-workers involved in consensual relationships. Such guidelines should encourage employees to bring their relationships out in open, which would help the management keep a close eye on the relationships and foresee the problems that might arise from them.

A lot has been said and written about workplace romance and sexual harassment but a lot of questions remain unanswered due to people shying away from the topic. Thorough studies of relationships and guiding policies by top management globally are essential. Addressing the issue of romantic and sexual liaisons in a proactive manner can decrease the likelihood that such activity will have a negative impact on the employer and other employees.

Dr Lew Tek Yew is a senior lecturer in management at the School of Business at Curtin Sarawak. He has published more than 30 journal articles and conference papers. His research interests include human resource management practices, perceived organiasational support, employee commitment and turnover. He can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3123or by e-mail to

Pranay Rai is a graduate from the School of Business, Curtin Sarawak.