While sleeping one’s way to the top may be a successful career strategy for some, many people who get romantically involved with a colleague find themselves in a position of vulnerability. Going public with one’s relationship status can be particularly nerve-racking – and new research reveals why, indicating that those who share both an office and bed are often ostracized by their co-workers.
According to the study authors’ analysis, this blackballing typically triggers a retaliation as the entire workplace becomes fragmented into hostile cliques. Like a group of hormonal high-school kids, then, it seems that professionals may have a tendency to become incredibly catty when love is in the air.
The study authors reached this conclusion after surveying 343 service sector employees in Pakistan. Questioning participants about their relationship status, levels of workplace ostracism, and other forms of hostility among co-workers, the study authors found that loved-up workmates tend to perceive their union as being frowned upon by colleagues, resulting in high levels of mistreatment at work.
Specifically, results showed that romantically-linked co-workers experience a high degree of workplace ostracism, which often manifests as “knowledge sabotage”, whereby others deliberately hinder their ability to function by providing them with false information or the wrong documents. Delving deeper into office dynamics, the researchers found that this trend is underpinned by parochial altruism, which is basically a fancy term for cliquiness.
“Parochial altruism refers to behaviors intended to benefit individuals in one’s close affiliations,” explain the study authors. Interpreting their data, they say that those in the lovers’ clique - or ingroup - often “persuade the romance partners to demonstrate social exclusion to the outgroup members to avoid possible threats to their relationship.”
In other words, clique members encourage those in workplace relationships to ostracize other colleagues in order to “protect the romance partners from negative repercussions such as negative publicity, litigation, hostility, and cynicism.” This, in turn, causes outgroup members to “manifest mutilating behaviors to vengeance their exclusion,” ostracizing the romance partners in retaliation for their own ostracization.
“Thus, this explodes a spiraling of workplace conflict,” say the study authors. Based on this observation, the researchers ultimately find themselves in agreement with other sociologists who describe workplace relationships as “stealth poison”.
Having said all that, it’s worth noting that every workplace is different and not all professional romance ends in the complete destruction of office harmony. It’s also important to remember that this study involved a relatively small number of people from one working sector in Pakistan, and results are therefore likely to be highly influenced by cultural variables.
Still, the authors sign off by warning organizations about the potential dangers of love, concluding that “an intimate relationship may disrupt an intimate flow of knowledge in the absence of appropriate HR policies.”
The study is published in PLOS ONE.