There are three key factors that contribute to how coworkers respond to a workplace romance including how they learn about the romance, their personal views of those participating in the romance and the company culture, suggests Sean Horan, assistant professor of relational communication in DePaul University's College of Communication.
Horan is coauthor of a new study, "Love at the Office? Understanding Workplace Romance Disclosures and Reactions from the Coworker Perspective," which was published online Feb. 5 in the Western Journal of Communication and will be printed in the March issue. The research explores the effect of workplace romances on coworkers and whether responses are primarily influenced by how the relationship is disclosed to them.
"I was interested in studying workplace romances because they are incredibly common yet, across social science, there is little research in the area," said Horan.
Horan, along with coauthor Renee Cowan, assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, discovered that if coworkers found out from the couple personally, there tended to be a more positive reaction than if they found out via office gossip or catching them "in the act."
"Individuals had much different reactions based on how they learned of the romance," explained Horan. "Being honest and upfront was better received than, let's say, walking in on your coworkers kissing in the parking garage or hearing it via office gossip."
How people personally perceived individuals in the relationship also plays a key role in their reaction. The titles of those in the workplace romance also affected their reaction, Horan said.
For example, in Horan's previous research in this area, he found that when a coworker dates a superior, they are likely to be lied to more, trusted less and viewed as less credible. One participant in the current study noted, "I was just taken aback because I knew he was pretty high up with the company and she not so much."
Additionally, the study found that company culture contributes to how coworkers view workplace romances. The authors propose that, often, more relaxed office environments don't have official policies on interoffice relationships, making them more acceptable, while more formal offices have strict policies in place, which distinguish them as inappropriate and unprofessional.
"It (the organization environment) kind of seemed like a college so it didn't seem too unprofessional," said another participant.
This is the fourth study in an ongoing series by Horan on workplace romance.
"I've concluded a couple of my studies the same way by saying 'date at your own risk,'" he said.
"Employees need to be aware that their peers will communicate with them differently if they have a workplace romance. Importantly, such differences can influence productivity and performance," Horan explained.
"It's always awkward seeing your ex. Now imagine having to see them all day, every day at work."
- Renee L. Cowan, Sean M. Horan. Love at the Office? Understanding Workplace Romance Disclosures and Reactions from the Coworker Perspective. Western Journal of Communication, 2014; 1 DOI: 10.1080/10570314.2013.866688
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