Are Workplace Romances Ethical Problems?- A Critical Analysis [Part 1]

The workplace is progressively becoming recognized as a sexually-charged environment (Morgan & Davidson, 2008; Riach & Wilson, 2007). Researchers, who have pioneered this field of study, have defined workplace romance as some form of intimate relationship between two employees in the same organization who have both expressed their romantic feelings in the form of some intimate association (Foley & Powell, 1999; Mainiero, 1989; Quinn, 1977). Individuals are increasingly meeting intimate partners in their workplace for various reasons including being in contact with work colleagues for extended hours in the office (Schultz, 2003). Exploring romantic relationships at work therefore has been researched since the mid-1970s (Biggs, Matthewman & Fultz, 2012). However, despite its increased occurrence, relatively little is known about this organizational phenomenon (Riach & Wilson, 2007). This may be because individuals have kept their relationships confidential for issues of privacy or for reasons associated with related promotional status or salary increase (Biggs, 2010). Pioneering studies have found that such relations can have negative effects on worker relations and productivity (Mainiero, 1989) while others have shown that such relationships can increase productivity and accelerate job satisfaction (Biggs et al., 2012; Pierce, Byrne & Aguinis,1996; Quinn, 1977).

Ethical leadership involves personal moral behavior and moral influence (Johnson, 2012). Leaders are responsible for the ethical behavior of others within their organization and as such, they must ensure that a positive ethical climate is percolated into their organization in order for morality to be developed in both them and their followers so that ethical choices can be followed through (Johnson, 2012). Additionally, healthy ethical climates are marked by zero tolerance for destructive behavior which is ideally clarified in organizational policies. However, instituting some policies against certain human behaviors are more challenging than others.  Workplace romance and sexual harassment for instance are similarly types of social-sexual behavior prevalent in organizations. Sexual harassment is considered workplace misbehavior (Johnson, 2012) but these two behaviors are not legally synonymous because workplace romance is legal and sexual harassment is not (Pierce, Muslin, Dudley & Aguinis, 2008). While distinct, Pierce and Aguinis (2009) argue that workplace romance cannot be clearly understood in isolation of sexually harassing behavior because sexual harassment claims in organizations often have dissolved workplace romance as an antecedent. In response, some organizations have imposed ethics-based restrictions on workplace romance (Parks, 2006). However, should this social-sexual human behavior be considered unethical merely because it has been linked to sexual harassment cases or because romantic relationships amongst work colleagues is considered immoral by some?  Stay tuned for Part 2!

Biggs, D.M. (2010).  Management consulting: A guide for students. London, U.K.: Cengage Learning.

Biggs, D., Matthewman, L. & Fultz, C. (2012). Romantic relationships in organizational settings: Attitudes on workplace romance in the UK and USA. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 27(4), 271-285.

Foley, S. & Powell, G.N. (1999). Not all is fair in love and work: Coworkers’ preferences for and responses to managerial interventions regarding workplace romances. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20(7), 1043-56.

Johnson, C.E. (2012). Meeting the ethical challenge: Casting light or shadow. Thousand Oaks,    CA: Sage.

Mainiero, L.A. (1989).  Office romance: Love, power, and sex in the workplace. New York, NY: Rawson Associates.

Morgan, L.M. & Davidson, M.J. (2008). Sexual dynamics in mentoring relationships – a critical review. British Journal of Management, 19, S120-S9.

Parks, M. (2006). 2006 Workplace romance poll findings. Retrieved from Society for Human Resource Management website:

Pierce, C.A., Byrne, D. & Aguinis, H. (1996).  Attraction in organizations: A model of workplace romance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 17, 5-32.

Quinn, R.E. (1977).  Coping with cupid: The formation, impact, and management of romantic relationships in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 22(1), 30-45.

Riach, K. and Wilson, F. (2007). Don’t screw the crew: exploring the rules of engagement in organizational romance. British Journal of Management, 18, 79-92.

Schultz, V. (2003). The sanitized workplace. Yale Law Review, 112(8), 2063-2191.


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