To date, organizational research has demonstrated that high-quality connections (e.g., Dutton & Heaphy, 2003), psychological intimacy (e.g., Lobel, Quinn, St. Clair, & Warfield, 1994), and high-quality relationships at work (e.g., Ragins & Verbos, 2007) are almost unequivocally beneficial for individuals. Additionally, evidence has shown a number of positive benefits and outcomes for individuals, teams, and organizations alike as a result of friendships at work (e.g., Jehn & Shah, 1997; Lu, Hafenbrack, Eastwick, Wang, Maddux, & Galinsky, 2017; Colbert, Bono, & Purvanova, 2016). However, once the individuals move from a platonic relationship to a sexual or romantic relationship, the perception of the dynamic changes, often resulting in negative discernments of and outcomes for the individuals involved.
This common attitude and understanding of workplace romances can be traced back to a long scholarly history of characterizing the workplace as a desexualized or sterile environment (e.g., Weber 1948; Beynon 1980; Burrell 1984, 1992). Workers have thus been groomed to see organizations as such, with scholars and practitioners alike warning employees about the dangers of blurring the lines between work and personal life (Burke, 2010).
As such, social-sexual behaviors and workplace romances are two taboo topics within organizations because of their possible linkages to conflicts such as sexual harassment. Despite these negative connotations, we know that social-sexual behavior and workplace romances are prevalent and nearly unavoidable phenomena that occur in organizations (Fleming, 2007; Kakabadse and Kakabadse 2004). To illustrate this point, a recent survey by CareerBuilder.com found that 37 percent of workers in the United States have dated a co-worker (Grasz, 2015). Similarly, Clarke (2006) found that in the UK, over 70 percent of workers have engaged in a workplace romance.
Thus, workplace romances, existing commonly in reality yet uncomfortably in thought, can be described as paradoxical. To date, the high-quality relationships and workplace romance literature streams have neglected this paradox where workplace romances exist in both positive and negative domains simultaneously.
Lewis (2000) describes a paradox as contradictory yet interrelated elements? elements that seem logical in isolation but absurd and irrational when appearing simultaneously (Lewis, 2000: 760). A paradox is some ‘thing’ that is constructed by individuals when oppositional tendencies are brought into recognizable proximity through reflection or interaction (Ford & Backoff, 1988: 89). In this paper I posit that workplace romances exist as a contentious paradox where individuals who engage in them often find themselves living in contradiction. On the one hand, these individuals might feel that their relationship is meaningful, supportive, or even motivational. On the other hand, individuals may feel that their relationship is inappropriate or irresponsible. Putnam (1986) would describe this tension between inappropriate workplace romances and high-quality relationships as system contradictions where organizations encourage their employees to form strong, trusting relationships with coworkers while discouraging or, in some cases, even forbidding the same types of relationships that become nonplatonic. This moral hypocrisy is the crux of this investigation.
Therefore, the aim of conceptual paper is twofold. First, I elicit conservation of resource (COR) theory (Hobfoll, 1989) to understand the existence of this contradiction by theorizing about the employee motivation behind workplace romances. A COR perspective will allow us to understand the simultaneous resource loss and gain that workplace romances perpetuate for individuals. As noted in Figure 1, two levels of factors will be considered when discussing the contributing factors to the subsequent resource gain and loss: micro and macro. Second, I seek to depict why workplace romances are prevalent in organizations despite their taboo stigmatization. More specifically, the second part of this paper focuses on how individuals lean into the resource gain derived by workplace romances to overcome and downplay the resource loss associated with them in order to sustain the relationship.
Figure 1 about here
According to Wilsons (2015) review, most of the literature has been conducted through a functionalist prescriptive, driven by the need to address the concerns of negative workplace romance outcomes. Additionally, current organizational literature regarding workplace romances can largely be bucketed into three main categories: antecedents, outcomes, and policies. In other words, most of the existent literature describes how workplace romances occur, what their outcomes are, and how they are managed by organizations. What the literature lacks in understanding, however, is why and how individuals participate in these relationships despite their negative stigma. Therefore, I set out in this paper to explore this question further to advance our understanding on this taboo topic.
This paper makes three theoretical contributions to the organizational scholarship field. First, this paper explores the micro and macro factors associated with workplace romances. Second, the COR perspective allows for further understanding of the duality of workplace romances as a mechanism for both resource gain and resource loss for the individuals involved. Lastly, this paper weighs in on the conversation around how individuals value different resources, allowing them to make decisions to overcome resource loss and maximize resource gain. Due to its controversial nature, workplace romances are an excellent topic used to discuss this debate in this paper in order to advance theory on the process individuals undergo when valuing resources.
CONSERVATION OF RESOURCE THEORY
Originally conceived by Hobfoll (1989), COR theory is a framework used by organizational scholars to understand motivation behind human behavior. Specifically, COR theory posits that individuals seek to acquire new resources while also protecting the resources they already have. According to Halbesleben, Neveu, Paustian-Underdahl, and Westman (2014), resources are loosely defined as anything that an individual perceives as valuable and will help them attain their goals. For example, employees may value their friendships at work, the actual work they do, their reputation among their colleagues, or any number of other examples dependent on individual work and personal goals. Importantly, Halbesleben and colleagues (2014) point out that the perception of resources is distinct from their actual outcomes. In other words, individuals may perceive certain resources as helping them with goal attainment despite the actuality of successful outcomes.
Primacy of resource loss and resource investment are the two main principles of COR theory. Primacy of resource loss describes the notion that resource loss is psychologically harmful for individuals and will have a greater impact than similarly valued resource gains. Thus, individuals will seek to avoid resource loss as a result. Resource investment describes the coping mechanism that individuals use where they invest additional resources to acquire new resources or protect against or recover from resource loss (Hobfoll, 2001a).
The fluctuation of resources is another important element of COR theory on which this conceptual paper rests. I posit that workplace romances can be both a source of resource gain and loss for individuals involved? that is, workplace romances can have simultaneous positive and negative implications for an individual. On the one hand, resource gain may be acquired through an increased sense of belongingness, social support or self-esteem while simultaneously causing resource depletion through distraction and secrecy. This paper does not seek to understand an exhaustive list of the factors that contribute to the resource gain and loss that occur within an individual as a result of their engagement in a workplace romance. But rather, I focus instead on the resulting resource gain and loss that occurs for an individual at two broad levels of analysis: micro and macro.