Small Businesses, Office Romances, and Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The number of employees engaging in office romances has been increasing. Small businesses need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of office romances, especially when they fail and lead to sexual harassment charges. All but the smallest of small businesses are covered under the federal sexual harassment laws, but small businesses do not have the same human resources or legal staff that large businesses have. Small businesses need to be proactive in their policies and training to avoid potential costly lawsuits.

INTRODUCTION

The number of employees engaging in office romances is substantial. Recent surveys find that between 33 and 70 percent of the workforce have at some time been involved in workplace affairs (Powers, 1999). A 2001 survey by Career Builders found that 58 percent of the respondents had been or were involved in a romantic relationship at work (Lawrence, 2001). A 1988 survey (Klein, 1988) discovered that one third of all romantic relationships started at work (Powers, 1999). A 1994 survey by American Management Association found that 79 percent of the workforce had either been involved in office affairs themselves or knew of their occurrence; 33 percent of the men and 13 percent of the women admitted that the relationship involved a subordinate (Powers, 1999). Twenty-one percent believed that it was appropriate to date a subordinate and 74 percent approved of co-workers' romances (Hymowitz and Pollock, 1997). These affairs are being initiated by both sexes, with over half of men in one survey responding they had received requests for dates from female coworkers (Chesanow, 1992).

A number of explanations are possible for this increase in office romances, such as the increase in the number of women in the workforce, men and women working together for longer hours, team projects, and common backgrounds and career aspirations (Powers, 1999). Women now compose 57.3 percent of the overall workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001). Powers (1999) notes that competent, ambitious, and upwardly mobile women entering the workforce interact, socialize, travel, meet, and work with male colleagues more than ever. Many employees delay marriage until their careers are established and then pursue relationships with colleagues who have the same career aspirations.

Anderson and Hunsaker (1985) explain the occurrence of office romances using social exchange theory. They argue that co-workers strive to meet each other's needs and develop strong social bonds in the process. The advent of teams and projects emphasizing the need for cooperative work increases opportunities to meet and develop social ties. When teams or projects are successful, mutual commitment, admiration, and bonds are built between male and female colleagues (Chesanow, 1992; Losey, 1993; Warfield, 1987). These bonds, coupled with long hours, stress of deadlines, and the need for coworker acceptance, are conducive to the development of office romances. Additionally, people working together share common backgrounds, socio-economic classes, education, and ethnic backgrounds, which also serve to increase attraction between coworkers (Anderson & Hunsaker, 1985).

The purpose of this paper is to examine the potential consequences, both positive and negative, of office romances. Small businesses need to be cognizant of the most important pitfall of office romances, which is the potential for sexual harassment charges. Therefore, this paper will review for the small business owner the legal issues and potential liabilities resulting from sexual harassment charges. The difficulty is that all but the smallest of small businesses are covered under federal sexual harassment regulations, but may not have the options or resources that large businesses have to deal with the problem. The paper will conclude with some proactive policies regarding office romances for small business owners to follow to avoid potentially costly lawsuits. …

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