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Romantic Relationships in the Workplace & Interpersonal Communication

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  • 0:00 Workplace Relationships
  • 1:16 Communication in…
  • 2:56 Communication and…
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you'll explore the ways in which romantic workplace relationships can impact communication between romantic partners as well as between coworkers. Then you'll test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Workplace Relationships

Consider the situation of John and Jane. They work together. Actually, they've worked together for quite a while, so they see each other every day. Because of this, they are good friends. But today, something has changed. Maybe it's the way Jane's eyes shine in the fluorescent lights, maybe it's the way that John changes the ink in the printer. Whatever it is, it's on. Oh yeah, John and Jane are falling in love.

In your average romantic comedy, that could be the end of it, but this ain't no rom-com. We're not just going to leave it there because this relationship has opened up an interesting question for social scientists like us. How do romantic relationships in the workplace affect communication?

Despite the fact that recent studies show 40-50% of people will engage in a romantic relationship with someone from work, this is just now growing as a field of study. So we've got a great opportunity here. Just remember, this is only one case, so results may vary. In other words, you may not want to try this at home (or at least at work)!

Communication in Workplace Relationships

There are a couple of ways that we can look at the issue of communication with regard to romantic workplace relationships. One of the most obvious but least studied is how working together impacts the communication within the romantic relationship. After all, communication is one of the most fundamental aspects of a successful relationship.

So John and Jane are dating. In a normal relationship, dating is characterized by specific communication patterns. But this is the workplace. John and Jane are both working on developing professional careers. As long as they find and maintain a good balance, both work and their relationship can thrive. But this is tricky. Studies show that communication between romantic partners at work is often more determined by fears about perception than the needs of the relationship.

Say that Jane is very concerned about maintaining a professional appearance so she continues to treat John like a coworker. This could be offensive if John is expecting to interact like a couple. He expects affirmation of the relationship through communication but instead receives different signals. This could create problems for the relationship.

One strategy used by many couples who share a workplace is the use of online technology for discreet communication. Emails, instant messages, etc., are one way that John and Jane could communicate attraction and emotions while still maintaining their professionalism.

Communication and Workplace Dynamics

Workplace relationships affect the ways that couples communicate with each other but they can also influence the communication between coworkers in a workplace. This is actually really interesting - researchers have found almost no consistency here. Sometimes, workplace relationships increase teamwork, productivity, and communication. Other times, workplace romances lead to jealousy, bitterness, and poorer communication among coworkers.

This is especially true if coworkers feel that the two people in a romantic relationship will have greater access to resources or opportunities, called the equity theory. The basic idea of this theory, which was developed in 1963 by behavioral psychologist J. Stacey Adams, is that people judge whether or not they are being treated fairly based on people around them. So in the average workplace, communication will be negative if co-workers feel that those in a relationship have some sort of an advantage over everyone else.

According to most researchers, what really determines this is the perceived motivation for the relationship. If coworkers see a relationship as motivated by increased opportunities, the result is a decrease in trust of that person. This is very often the case when an employee begins a relationship with the boss. Relationships determined to be motivated by casual sex are also met with distrust since they can easily lead to messy breakups that create tension in the workplace. However, relationships that are seen as being motivated by love or genuine emotional attraction actually very often result in increased trust and open communication within a workplace.

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