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Sweet nothings on the workplace romance

People are spending longer hours in tighter quarters at work than they ever have before, leading Julian Barling, associate dean and professor at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont., to conclude “organizational reality today is just ripe for relationships.”

It’s been estimated as many as one-third of all romantic relationships begin in the workplace. With so much love sprouting at the office, one would think this would be a hot topic in Canada’s business schools. But silence seems to be the operative word when it comes to lessons in workplace love.

“I’m going to suggest that very little is taught specifically about office romances,” Prof. Barling says.

Jennifer L. Berdahl, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says that the attention paid to office romance and its ugly cousin, sexual harassment, can vary significantly.

“I’ve taught a Gender in Organizations class to MBA students in which we spent a whole week on this,” she says. “In my general introduction courses — introducing people to management, organizational behaviour — it might be one-third of a lecture.”

Yet, when taught at all, lessons about romantic relationships in the workplace are usually given within the context of sexual harassment and crisis management studies.

And that’s a shame, says Dr. Berdahl. “I’ve had a lot of MBA students from this program and others tell me that they were never taught anything about sexual harassment or office romance issues in their education.”

She says sexual harassment is commonly misunderstood, not only by workers, but also by business professors. “They don’t really know how to handle it in their classrooms or don’t think it’s a really serious topic to cover. It’s been fodder for jokes.”

Much of the research to date in the area of workplace romances focuses on the negative aspects. But modern-day realities may force a new way of looking at this budding situation. Office romances, says Prof. Barling, can be a “wonderful potential opportunity” for organizations and their managers to capitalize on.

“I would like to go in and throw out the crazy idea of getting a class to give you all the positives about romantic relationships at work. I would then try and give a balanced perspective, saying that human relationships can be wonderful and they can be troublesome,” he says. “It is just another issue that managers will undoubtedly face at some point.”

National Post
Saturday, February 10, 2007
Page: FW5
Section: FP Weekend
Byline: Philip Alves