Workplace romances in the spotlight after sexual harassment scandals

NEW YORK — The minefield that coworkers and companies navigate when it comes to love at work has gotten even more complex following the recent flood of sexual misconduct allegations roiling Hollywood, politics and the media. Office relationships that might have flown under the radar — particularly those between boss and subordinate — are getting a new look. And even those who might be looking to ask a co-worker on a date are thinking twice.

"People need to think hard before they enter into a workplace romance," said Pennell Locey, a human resources expert at consulting firm Keystone Associates, who knows how complicated love can get in the workplace: She married a co-worker.

The office is one of the most popular places to find a lover. One out of four — 24 percent — of employees reported they have been or are currently involved in a workplace romance, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. That might be changing with the recent slew of sexual harassment allegations putting a chill on things.

"One positive thing coming out of this is people are getting educated about what are the boundaries you should be conscious of," she added. "It kind of takes if off autopilot."

Increasingly organizations are implementing a written or verbal policy on workplace romance — 42 percent in 2013 versus 25 percent in 2005, according to the most recent data available from the society. Most rules outlaw relationships between bosses and subordinates or push for "love contracts," where workplace couples are required to disclose their relationships.

But some people ignore the rules.

"You can have a handbook and a policy and they'll ignore everything in there, including the CEO on down," said Joanne P. Lee, a vice president at N.K.S. Distributors in New Castle, Delaware, who has worked in human resources for 35 years. "Sometimes they think, 'Oh, this doesn't pertain to me.' And I think that's what got everyone in trouble."

Workplace romances have long played a part in pop culture, whether in the films "Broadcast News," "Working Girl," "Anchorman" and "Love Actually," or on TV shows like "Mad Men," "Cheers," "The Office," and "Moonlighting." One top song this holiday season is Garth Brooks' "Ugly Christmas Sweater," with a line about "that pretty little girl from accounting."

In the real world, workplace relationships have been for better, and worse. Bill Gates met his wife Melinda at the office. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick landed in prison because he lied under oath about his extramarital affair with a staffer.

The propriety of consensual work relationships is getting renewed attention this week after PBS announced it was suspending TV host Tavis Smiley following an independent investigation by a law firm, which uncovered "multiple, credible allegations of conduct that is inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS." His show's page at PBS was scrubbed on Thursday. Smiley responded to the allegations on Facebook, saying PBS "overreacted" and calling it "a rush to judgment."

"If having a consensual relationship with a colleague years ago is the stuff that leads to this kind of public humiliation and personal destruction, heaven help us," he said. "This has gone too far. And, I, for one, intend to fight back."

Office relationships may grow more secretive if there is a knee-jerk reaction to try to outlaw all office romance, said Amy Nicole Baker, a psychology professor at the University of New Haven who has studied the topic.

"We know from at least my work and some other peoples' work that if you try to stamp out consensual attraction in the workplace, you just drive it underground," she said.

The experts say workplace romances — always fraught, risky propositions — have only gotten more anguished following the uncovering of abuses at offices nationwide. "Saturday Night Live" recently featured a skit with an overwhelmed HR manager reminding everyone of the rules.

Joshua Lybolt can understand why companies are responding aggressively to new allegations, but he also understands workplace relations: He founded Lifstyl Real Estate in Crown Point, Indiana, with his wife, Magdalena, the same year they were married.

"From an employer standpoint, I think they're probably taking it too far, but I understand that from a risk-management issue, they want to mitigate conflict as much as possible," he said.

He said it's just good policy to keep relationship issues out of the workplace. His company, which employs another married couple, has avoided problems, but "we all know how relationships can turn." Just to be safe in his own marriage, he and his wife eventually started working from different offices.