The minefield that co-workers and companies navigate when it comes to love at work has gotten even more complex following the recent flood of sexual misconduct allegations roiling Hollywood, politics and the media.
Office relationships that might have flown under the radar — particularly those between boss and subordinate — are getting a new look. And even those who might be looking to ask a co-worker on a date are thinking twice.
"People need to think hard before they enter into a workplace romance," said Pennell Locey, a human resources expert at consulting firm Keystone Associates, who knows how complicated love can get in the workplace: She married a co-worker.
"One positive thing coming out of this is people are getting educated about what are the boundaries you should be conscious of," she added. "It kind of takes if off autopilot."
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The office is one of the most popular places to find a lover. One out of four employees — 24 percent — reported they have been or are currently involved in a workplace romance, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Increasingly organizations are implementing a written or verbal policy on workplace romance — 42 percent in 2013 versus 25 percent in 2005, according to the most recent data available from the society. Most rules outlaw relationships between bosses and subordinates or push for "love contracts," where workplace couples are required to disclose their relationships.
But some people ignore the rules.
"You can have a handbook and a policy and they'll ignore everything in there, including the CEO on down," said Joanne P. Lee, a vice president at N.K.S. Distributors in New Castle, Delaware, and who has worked in human resources for 35 years. "Sometimes they think, 'Oh, this doesn't pertain to me.' And I think that's what got everyone in trouble."
Workplace romances have long played a part in pop culture, whether in the films "Broadcast News," ''Working Girl," ''Anchorman" and "Love Actually," or on TV shows like "Mad Men," ''Cheers," ''The Office," and "Moonlighting." One top song this holiday season is Garth Brooks' "Ugly Christmas Sweater" with a line about "that pretty little girl from accounting."
In the real world, workplace relationships have been for better, and worse: Bill Gates met his wife Melinda at the office. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick landed in prison because he lied under oath about his extramarital affair with a staffer.
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The propriety of consensual work relationships is getting renewed attention this week, after PBS announced it was suspending TV host Tavis Smiley following an independent investigation by a law firm, which uncovered "multiple, credible allegations of conduct that is inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS." His show's page at PBS was scrubbed on Thursday. Smiley responded to the allegations on Facebook, saying PBS "overreacted" and calling it "a rush to judgment."
"If having a consensual relationship with a colleague years ago is the stuff that leads to this kind of public humiliation and personal destruction, heaven help us," he said. "This has gone too far. And, I, for one, intend to fight back."
Office relationships may grow more secretive if there is a knee-jerk reaction to try to outlaw all office romance, said Amy Nicole Baker, a psychology professor at the University of New Haven who has studied the topic.
"We know from at least my work and some other peoples' work that if you try to stamp out consensual attraction in the workplace, you just drive it underground," she said.
The experts say workplace romances — always fraught, risky propositions — have only gotten more anguished following the uncovering of abuses at offices nationwide. "Saturday Night Live" recently featured a skit with an overwhelmed HR manager reminding everyone of the rules.
Joshua Lybolt can understand why companies are responding aggressively to new allegations, but he also understands workplace relations: He founded Lifstyl Real Estate in Crown Point, Indiana, with his wife, Magdalena, the same year they were married.
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"From an employer standpoint, I think they're probably taking it too far, but I understand that from a risk-management issue, they want to mitigate conflict as much as possible," he said.
He said it's just good policy to keep relationship issues out of the workplace. His company, which employs another married couple, has avoided problems, but "we all know how relationships can turn." Just to be safe in his own marriage, he and his wife eventually started working from different offices.
Associated Press writer Jeff Karoub contributed to this report.
With a series of high-profile workplace sex scandals on their minds, employers are making sure their holiday office parties don't become part of the problem.
There will be less booze at many. An independent business organization has renewed its annual warning not to hang mistletoe. And some will have party monitors, keeping an eye out for inappropriate behavior.
TV and movies often depict office parties as wildly inappropriate bacchanals or excruciatingly awkward fiascoes, if not, horrifyingly, both. But even a regular office party can be complicated because the rules people normally observe at work don't quite apply, which makes it easier for people to accidentally cross a line — or try to get away with serious misbehavior. Especially when too much drinking is involved.
According to a survey by Chicago-based consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, only 49 percent of companies plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events. Last year that number was 62 percent, the highest number in the decade the firm has run its survey. The number had been going up each year as the economy improved.
"As soon as you introduce alcohol at an off-site activity, peoples' guards are dropped," said Ed Yost, manager of employee relations and development for the Society for Human Resource Management based in Alexandria, Virginia. "It's presumed to be a less formal, more social environment. Some people will drink more than they typically would on a Friday night or a Saturday because it's an open bar or a free cocktail hour."
The Huffington Post reported Friday that Vox Media, which runs sites including Vox and Recode, won't have an open bar this year at its holiday party and will instead give employees two tickets they can redeem for drinks. It will also have more food than in years past. The company recently fired its editorial director, Lockhart Steele, after a former employee made allegations of sexual harassment against him.
A survey by Bloomberg Law said those kinds of safeguards are common: while most companies ask bartenders or security or even some employees to keep an eye on how much partygoers are drinking, others limit the number of free drinks or the time they're available. A small minority have cash bars instead of an open bar.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses recommends all of those steps, and adds another that might seem obvious these days: don't hang mistletoe. It's been giving those suggestions for several years.
Yost said he always gets a lot of requests for advice in planning and managing these events, but he's getting even more of them this year. He said he'll be spending his corporate holiday party the way he always does: patrolling hallways, checking secluded areas and trying to watch for people who look like they are stuck in an uncomfortable situation — for example, inappropriate touching or a conversation that's taken a bad turn. If they're visibly uncomfortable, he'll intervene and plan a later conversation with the person responsible.
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The Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey shows that about 80 percent of companies will have a holiday party, the same as last year. And not everyone is planning changes.
Anthony Vitiello, the marketing director for software company Anton Robb Group, said he planned his company's event and didn't rethink it. For the last few years the firm's has marked the holiday with drinks and passed hors d'oeuvres in the wide cellar of a local restaurant. Vitiello thinks the formal setting makes the event calmer.
"We haven't had any incidents, not a single one I can recall, where anyone got loud or over-consumed," he said. He added that many of his company's 25 employees go out for drinks once a month, and he's not aware of any cases of misconduct.
Yost said he's not making changes to his group's event either. He added that companies concerned about sexual misconduct need to look further than the holiday party.
"While there are additional complications that are associated with a holiday event, that's one day a year," he said.