Corporate Health – The Pros and Cons of Employee Relationships

(This is the eighth in a monthly series about Corporate Health, where we examine different methods and ideas for improving efficiency, your company culture, and employee morale.)

Employee relationships in the workplace is a polarized subject. For every article about the problems and issues that it causes, there are an equal number of articles praising the benefits of strong employee engagement and camaraderie.

Employee fraternization isn’t just romantic relationships; it also includes friendships that develop within the workplace. The first thing to understand is that friendships between colleagues cannot be avoided. Co-workers already have one thing in common, their employer, to build a relationship upon, and it doesn’t take long to find other commonalities in their personal lives. An office friend with whom you can share achievements and frustrations can make a difference in job satisfaction. In fact, a study by Randstad revealed 67% of employees believe having friends at work makes their job more enjoyable, while 55% say friendships contribute to making their job more worthwhile and satisfying.[1]

More companies are embracing the idea of employee relationships as part of their corporate culture, realizing that building these friendships also builds trust and solidarity among co-workers. In a recent survey by Bold, half the respondents said their company encourages colleagues to interact outside the work environment, and over 65% agree that fostering those friendships helps contribute to corporate health and a better work-life balance. Companies who actively support employee fraternization promote it with company social events, including picnics, trips to dinner, movies, or local attractions like amusement parks. Other companies have arranged volunteer opportunities for the chance to give back to their communities as well.

The subject of employee relationships gets trickier when romance is involved, but the stigma of an office romance, at least among peers, may not be as negative as some perceive. A University of Tulsa study, by assistant professor of psychology Amy Nicole Salvaggio, interviewed 200 full-time workers from various industries, and discovered that most people do not mind an office romance between two unmarried colleagues. The objections arise when one or both individuals are already married, or if the relationship is between a supervisor and his/her subordinate.[2] However, most employers tend to believe that unless it ends in marriage (and even sometimes when it does) an office relationship is usually no good for the company, the employees involved, or the co-workers affected.

Companies need a firm policy in place when it comes to workplace romance, to avoid the impression of favoritism, loss of credibility, or possible sexual harassment charges. Policies should have a clear stance on conflict of interest relationships between supervisor and subordinates, guidelines for married couples: if they are permitted to work in the company, how many levels of supervision and/or departments should be between them, etc., and a description of the consequences of breaking the policy.

The important thing to remember is to not make your policy, especially regarding friendships, too restrictive. Policies with no flexibility, especially over friendships, will eventually create job dissatisfaction and possibly cause the loss of valuable employees who aren’t willing to sacrifice a friendship for a job.