Weighing the Pros and Cons of Office Romances

As long as there have been offices, there have been office romances. But when single employees fall in love on the job, is it good for business? Stanford psychologist Robert Sutton says studies show companies can benefit when employees fall in love, provided they stay together.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Wednesdays, our business report focuses on the workplace, and today: love and lust in the workplace. Here to talk about how to manage sparks on the job is Robert Sutton. He's an organizational psychologist at Stanford University. Hello.

Professor ROBERT SUTTON (Organizational Psychologist, Stanford University): Hello. How are you doing, Renee?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Let's just jump in with how do companies deal with workplace relationships? And also, is it different now than it was in year's past?

Prof. SUTTON: Well, probably the main change in workplace relationships is that Americans spend increasingly more time at work. If you think about the opportunities for love, they're increasingly in the workplace. That's the main place it happens.

MONTAGNE: But historically, office romances seem to have been kind of hush-hush.

Prof. SUTTON: They still are hush-hush, and many organizations - and, in fact, organizations have policies that vary from simply stamping them out and discouraging them as much as possible, to some of the organizations that I've been looking into such as Southwest Airlines and the SAS Institute - which is a software firm in North Carolina - they tend to be more encouraging of it.

The most frequent policy - and this is consistent with a lot of law and also a lot of common sense - is that if it's relationships among people who are sort of the same power and status levels - peers - then it's okay. But if it's a situation where a more powerful person is attracted to or has a relationship with a less powerful person, then a lot of policies come into play.

MONTAGNE: But let's just stick with equals. Why would it be bad for a company to have two people, basically equal, having a relationship?

Prof. SUTTON: Well, it's funny. So I've been reading a lot of the research on this recently, and there's sort of a life cycle of these things. And, you know, academics study everything. And it turns out that in the early days of the romance, where all that sort of lust and excitement is going on, all sorts of predictable things happen.

If you think about the relationships that you've seen, it's pretty predictable that productivity goes down, commitment to the organization goes down. They're so focused on one another that they have a hard time thinking about their job.

MONTAGNE: Right.

Prof. SUTTON: But what it looks like is if things don't turn bad, then it actually is quite good for the organization.

MONTAGNE: Why is it good if the relationship settles down and continues in the company?

Prof. SUTTON: First of all, you get loyalty. And sort of the poster child for loyalty and love is Southwest Airlines. They have 1,100 married couples - so that's 2,200 people. They're very proud of that. They talk openly about how this leads to loyalty and commitment and also knowledge about the organization.

MONTAGNE: You mean that the two people have gotten together, and now, between them, they know a lot about the business that they're in and the company they're in? Or do you mean that it leads to people - to good PR?

Prof. SUTTON: Well, let's suppose that you've got a pilot who is married to a manager, which certainly has happened at Southwest. You have more complete knowledge about different parts of the organization within that couple.

The other thing is Southwest uses the amount of love in the organization - that's one of the things they proudly advertise. It's a standard PR call. You know, and they think it's great that they've got 2,200 people who are married together in the company.

MONTAGNE: Just finally - imbalance? Are these love relationships good in a business environment?

Prof. SUTTON: From my perspective - and I'm thinking of a number of different organizations. My own employer, Stanford, SAS Institute and also Southwest Airlines, I think that we're all organizations that do better and have more stability and more loyalty because there's so many couples who have met and formed long-term relationships.

So I don't think it's all bad. But like anything else within relationships, it's dangerous.

MONTAGNE: Robert Sutton is an organizational psychologist at Stanford University. Thanks for joining us.

Prof. SUTTON: All right. Thank you.

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