At no point has the course of love run smooth, but it is harder to find love in offices today than ever before.

A recent study by job listings website CareerBuilder found that workplace romances in the US have fallen to a 10-year low after the #MeToo movement. In India, human resource (HR) experts speculate that there has been a similar decline. “More experienced professionals have become aware of the negative consequences of workplace relationships," says Premlesh Machama, managing director, India, CareerBuilder. 

India’s millennial workforce has the longest working hours in the world (52 hours per week, according to a 2016 ManpowerGroup survey), and there are several studies to show that “repeated exposure" is a key trigger for love. “It is natural to be attracted or feel a sense of closeness to a colleague since we spend most of our time at the workplace," explains Chryslynn D’Costa, head, diversity and inclusion, Serein Inc.

But should co-workers act on their feelings towards one another at this point in time? “In plain terms, no," says Shital Kakkar Mehra, business etiquette and communication coach. This is a watershed moment for women’s rights at work, and as companies struggle to sensitize employees to sexual harassment, both men and women need to tread carefully. “The #MeToo campaign has highlighted the grey areas in consensual workplace relationships. Employees need to be aware that any move they make can backfire," says Mehra. 

In this scenario both organizations and employees need to have a mature approach to office affairs. “The question of banning a relationships doesn’t arise," says Nishith Upadhyaya, head, advisory and knowledge, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) India. Besides, D’Costa says there is no data to suggest that a no-dating company policy leads to fewer incidents of sexual harassment. 

While organizations and human resources departments are honing policies on consensual workplace relationships, these tips will help employees manage their romance at work better. 

A no is a no 

Most sexual harassment complaints originate from an interaction that left one person feeling uncomfortable. “Asking someone out on a date is appropriate. However, asking someone out repeatedly despite them saying no amounts to sexual harassment," explains D’Costa.  

Skip the grand gestures 

Declarations of love in rose petals or message balloons are best left behind with your college days. Be mindful of your surroundings and body language when floating the idea of a date at work. “Don’t think that if you chase a person they will fall in love with you. That only happens in the movies. At work, if you chase someone, they are going to report you to human resource," says Mehra. 

Love out of bounds 

Office relationships can be hard work even when both parties are single; if one or both are married, it can be a whole new minefield. It’s also fairly common—according to a 2015 survey by CareerBuilder India, one in three workers has had an affair with a co-worker where one person involved was married at the time. Machama found the number high, but he wasn’t surprised. “People form emotional connections when they are stressed at work or facing issues in their personal life," he says. Under these circumstances, things can move quickly from friendship to romance. 

Mehra cautions that these relationships have many implications, none of then positive. “Your character will be called into question, and people will view you very badly as a leader," she claims. 

Whatever the case, an office romance almost always complicates the workplace dynamic. But is proactively legislating love at work, in the form of a Love Contract (see box) the answer? Chandrasekhar Sripada, professor of organizational behaviour and strategic human capital at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, is of the opinion that rulebooks go out of the window when Cupid strikes. “These are emotions that cannot be governed by policy. I hope we don’t reach a point where we have to contract our love," he says. 

Know the rules

A 2013 SHRM survey showed that 42% of employers have written or verbal policies to address office romance. Find out what is acceptable before you proceed. “The employee code of conduct agreement has clauses that outline responsibilities and expectations. For instance, how direct boss and subordinate relationships are not permissible," says Sripada. What constitutes explicit consent will be covered under the guidelines to combat sexual harassment. 

Play it safe 

Regardless of policy, should you inform HR that you are in a personal relationship with someone at work? Some call it a professional move, others think it’s unnecessary. “Disclosure doesn’t actually protect the company from any future workplace issues that may arise between the couple," explains Upadhyaya. However, it is important to maintain a “Chinese wall" between your personal and professional lives when you are involved. No public demonstrations of affection at the office party or off-site training, or use of office email and inter-office chat to share sweet nothings. Avoid disappearing on long lunches or taking tea breaks together. “Safeguard your career by keeping all the romancing outside the office," Mehra says.

How to deal with disclosure

How does an HR manager rise to the challenge when an employee declares s/he’s fallen in love with a co-worker? Shital Kakkar Mehra, says start by acknowledging that coming forward was the right move. Share the corporate policy on office romance and sexual harassment guidelines again. Make it clear that you want to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement and invite the other person in as well. If either person has to be transferred, ask for time and request them to keep things as quiet as possible. 

“It’s a complicated triangle, with you (the employer) being the third wheel. But if you project yourself with maturity, the organization will come out of this looking good," says Mehra. 

The Love Contract

Why ban romances when you can contractually bind them? In the West, employees are being asked to sign “Love Contracts", where both parties declare, in writing, that their relationship is voluntary (not coerced) and that they have been apprised of the company’s sexual harassment policies. 

In India, however, experts are sceptical about whether these consensual relationship agreements will work. Nishith Upadhyaya points out that they are not legally infallible. For instance, an employee can say that they felt coerced into signing it. “This (contract) is an extreme step, coming from a society where litigation is expensive and rigorously, sometimes even maliciously, followed. Our society isn’t yet that litigant," says Chandrasekhar Sripada.

Upadhyaya feels the only way to successfully handle an office romance is to have a defined view on it, one that reflects your company’s social culture. This could even mean encouraging office romances. “Recognize that it puts people at ease and makes the workplace a more accepting environment," he explains.

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