Watch out for the work spouses

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Growing numbers of people are finding spouses in the workplace, but these couples won’t spend their lives together, just the workday. Less soul mate than cubicle mate, many employees are finding the corporate environment is the perfect place to meet a “work spouse.”

Work-spouse relationships are powerful platonic friendships formed between co-workers that mirror the bonds formed between actual spouses or partners. These close relationships are becoming more common in the workplace, with one in 10 workers reporting that they have a work spouse, according to an online survey conducted for Career Builder.com.

“They are natural relationships that form from being in close proximity with someone on a day-to-day basis,” says Ruth Houston, New York-based infidelity expert and author. “But certain checks and balances need to be put in place to keep a work-spouse relationship from transforming into a work-spouse affair.”

Companies can benefit from “corporate marriages” so long as the relationships remain platonic and productive. Work spouses generally work very well together, because they share an intimate knowledge of their partner’s communication techniques and work skills. The relationship also creates a sense of support, as employees feel that they can express their professional and personal stresses to a trustworthy partner.

Nevertheless, the risk remains that if a platonic relationship turns physical, a sexual harassment suit isn’t far behind. The longer work-spouse relationships continue, the greater the risk of the relationship turning into an affair, says Houston. With more than 12,000 cases of sexual harassment reported in 2007, and more than $49.9 million paid to victims, human resource departments need to be wary of these relationships.  

While constant employee monitoring is impossible, if not a sign of bad management, supervisors need to be wary of the amount of time that employees share together, and the capacities in which they meet. Houston notes that time spent away from the eyes of supervisors and peers, including business trips and late nights spent working, are catalysts for work-spouse relationships to turn sexual.

Staff should be informed regularly about the company’s policies on sexual harassment policies and office romance. Likewise, employees who are aware their work-spouse relationship is considered inappropriate by their peers will be more conscious about venturing off to work on a project alone in a closed conference room, says Houston.

The restrictive nature of a work-spouse relationship often alienates other employees as well. While the work spouses may be a productive team, if one partner cannot work independently of the other, a manager needs to examine the working relationship and ask for a divorce if necessary.    NICOLE STORMBERG


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