How to keep office romances from hurting your practice

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By Victoria Stagg Elliottis a longtime staff member. She covered practice management issues and wrote the "Practice Management" column from 2009 to 2013. She also covered public health and science from 2000 to 2009. Posted April 11, 2011.

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Cole Porter wrote that, when it comes to love, "birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it," but so do medical practice employees. Intimate relations among staffers can create drama, lower morale, reduce productivity and prompt litigation, but experts say these risks can be minimized even if they can't be eliminated.

"There can be so much tension. It can make everyone's life miserable," said attorney David Gabor, a partner at Gabor & Gabor in Garden City, N.Y.

A few workplaces prohibit co-workers from dating, which may seem like an easy way out, but most attorneys and medical practice consultants recommend against it.

"There is no way to monitor and control that," said Danielle Urban, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Denver. "You have got to be realistic."

Some medical practices are run by married couples, and workplace relationships that are more than professional are not uncommon.

A survey of 3,910 workers by CareerBuilder, an online job search and recruitment company, released Feb. 10 found that 40% had dated a fellow employee. An additional 18% had dated a co-worker at least twice in their careers. Of those who had dated a co-worker, 30% married that person. About 8% are working with someone they would like to date.

"Workplace relationships no longer carry the stigma they once did. ... However, it is the responsibility of the individuals to understand company policy and make sure they adhere to it," said Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder's vice president of human resources. "Especially in this economy, workers are spending more time in the office, and the lines between working and socializing are being crossed."

Experts recommend that potential conflicts caused by sexual dynamics be addressed through employee policies governing harassment, conflict of interest, nepotism and workplace conduct. If problems seem to be developing, they should be tackled sooner rather than later through educational seminars, counseling and disciplinary action, as appropriate.

"If relationship issues are spilling over into the workplace, you have to be quick to address them," Urban said.

Instituting policies

Matters of the heart are challenging for any business, but experts say the first step is to consider what policies are needed before a problem develops.

"A great time to consider this is when there is nothing going on," said Maria Todd, PhD, CEO of the Mercury Healthcare Companies in Denver. "Thereby, you can't be accused of singling anyone out and charged with discrimination."

Questions to consider are whether employees entering a consensual romantic relationship need to notify their supervisors. Should they be required to sign a "love contract," which is increasingly discussed among human resource professionals and spells out workplace conduct, especially if a relationship turns sour?

"The two have to agree to keep professional decorum when they are in the office," Todd said.

One way of dealing with possible problems caused by office romances are policies explaining that harassment -- sexual or otherwise -- will not be tolerated and, if it happens, how the complaint would be handled. This is particularly crucial in handling a breakup where one party claims the relationship was not entirely consensual or any retaliatory behavior after a coupling dissolves.

"You should have at least two people identified as someone employees can complain to," Gabor said.

Other policies that can come into play include those dealing with nepotism and conflicts of interest. Larger companies usually have policies prohibiting couples in a romantic relationship from supervising each other or working in the same office.

This may be impractical at a small practice, and some experts suggest that it may be necessary to encourage one or both parties to get jobs elsewhere. However, legal counsel should be sought before terminating anyone. If one is let go but the other is kept on, a gender discrimination lawsuit could result.

"You have to be very careful. You need legal advice," said Cindy Dunn, RN, a principal with the Medical Group Management Assn.'s Health Care Consulting Group.

Problems caused by office romances may be addressed in policies tackling appropriate behavior in the workplace. This is particularly key because public displays of affection -- or hatred if the relationship ended badly -- can be perceived as creating a hostile work environment for other employees, who can bring their own lawsuits. Patients may be turned off by such behavior.

"It can be very uncomfortable to witness that," Todd said.

Educational seminars and counseling sessions to further reinforce policies may prevent situations from getting tense or reduce tension if it develops. For example, Dunn worked at a practice where an office affair was causing chaos. The practice was too small for an employee assistance program (EAP), but the physician was affiliated with a hospital that had one. It turned out to be an inexpensive resource.

"It's really just a difficult situation," Dunn said. "We had an EAP counselor come in to review policies with staff. That helped a lot."

Victoria Stagg Elliott is a longtime staff member. She covered practice management issues and wrote the "Practice Management" column from 2009 to 2013. She also covered public health and science from 2000 to 2009.

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