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Workplace relationships focus of IUPUC professor’s research

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Kevin Jones has always had more than a passing interest in factors contributing to romance in the workplace.

In two-plus decades in the private sector working in management and human resource development, Jones has witnessed more than a few employees engaged in office flings.

He has seen everything from casual dalliances that have blossomed into long-term relationships, to white-hot romances that deteriorated into claims of sexual harassment.

“One of the things that helps encourage workplace relationships is the image that people project in the workplace, especially in professional positions,” Jones said. “You don’t really see the bad sides of people, so it’s not surprising that you find them interesting, and you’ve laid the seeds for workplace romance.”

Jones is an assistant professor of management, in the Division of Business at IUPUC. He has been a full-time faculty member at IUPUC since 2011, but has been involved with education on a more limited basis for 26 years.

Jones, 55, realized his real-world knowledge of workplace romances and exposure to young people who are social media-savvy provided an opportunity to explore a possible connection between the two.

“When I came to IUPUC, I was trying to determine what would be an interesting research strain and I knew that workplace romance affects everyone in one way or another,” Jones said.

He said the biggest mistake an employer can make is to turn a blind eye to job relationships. Sometimes, he said, the relationship can impact both those directly involved and coworkers who are aware of it.

“Before, it was always behind the walls of the organization, but now it has expanded because our workplace has moved well beyond the office,” Jones said.

Jones began working with Lisa Maniero, who wrote the book “Office Romance: Love, Power, and Sex in the Workplace” in 1989.

He said Maniero was intrigued by the new spin on an old phenomena and the two began to research the subject together.

Some of their findings were published in the academic peer-reviewed, Journal of Business Ethics in 2013, and referenced in a recent Psychology Today article about workplace relationships.

The article is titled “Workplace Romance 2.0: Developing a Communication Ethics Model to Address Potential Sexual Harassment from Inappropriate Social Media Contacts Between Coworkers.”

In the research, the two management professors define what a “workplace spouse” relationship looks like, and how it can lead to difficulties in the office.

Among its findings is that the introduction of social media makes it very difficult to hide an office romance and can, in some cases, contribute to sexual harassment.

“The ability to use social media, to text and to tweet enables people to start, develop and conclude romances everywhere, at any time and it’s changed the notion of workplace romances,” Jones said. “One of the biggest problems with workplace romances, of course, is that they don’t always last.”

When that happens, social media can become a very powerful and very damaging, tool.

A jilted lover, or even a third party, can use social media to reveal a supervisor-subordinate relationship, or a romance between coworkers who are married, but not to each other.

An innocent act, such as friending someone on Facebook, sending a provocative text, or taking photos when a romance is going well, can take an unanticipated turn if the relationship starts to sour.

Jones said there are also times when both parties don’t agree on the status of the relationship and social networking sites such as Foursquare can almost become a stalking tool.

While it has become incredibly widespread, Jones said many users still don’t fully realize the long-term impact of social networking.

He pointed out that revealing images or text messages not meant for public consumption can become a workplace nightmare if a jilted lover decides to release them to coworkers through social media.

The challenge for employers is to determine whether abuse of social media constitutes sexual harassment and when it becomes a disruptive element in the workplace.

Companies have guidelines regarding sexual harassment, but Jones said they probably need to be updated to recognize the impact from social networking.

“The problem is how to do that because a lot of social media is not job-related and the alleged harassment is not necessarily occurring in the workplace,” Jones said.

Unlike more widely recognized forms of sexual harassment, Jones said abuse of social media can take several forms, and the guidelines have not yet been established.

He suggested companies should examine their corporate culture and establish policies regarding the limits of social media as it relates to coworkers. Some companies are more tolerant of workplace relationships than others, and guidelines would probably need to reflect that.

Policies on who can be linked through social media is probably not possible, or even legal, but establishing content guidelines that limit offensive or personal posts might be an option.

Some media organizations have already implemented policies that prohibit employees from posting private social network comments in support of issues, organizations, or candidates, to maintain objectivity.

Regardless of how they address the issue, Jones said employers are going to have to confront this new love connection.

“Workplace romance has been around for a long time and it, and the social network, are not going to go away anytime soon,” he said.

Lucas Ford, who graduated from IUPUC in 2011, said he has really begun to see the value of his former professor’s teachings now that he is in the workforce.

“Everything that (Jones) did took more than the traditional approach, it wasn’t just black and white, book-savvy kind of stuff,” Graber said. “It was real experiences and real-life situations, and I learned a lot form that.”

Ford, who has a Bachelor of Science Degree in business management, said those lessons are not written in a job description, but they are things that you need to know when you enter the workforce.

Susan Sullivan, director, Office of Communications & Marketing, said the university strives to find professors that bring a combination of education and real-world experience into the classroom.

“Faculty like Dr. Jones offer valuable insights about how classroom concepts and theories are actually practiced in the workplace (and) ... brings the curriculum to life in the minds of many students,” Sullivan said. “They also provide individualized feedback to help students develop the character strengths and abilities needed for a competitive edge in the employment market.”

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