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Love at the Office

Just mention the word love at the office, and soon enough, minds will go to affairs behind closed doors, elicit text messages and calls to human resources.

We in human resources don’t like love at the office. It causes awkward pauses, distractions and from time-to-time yucky uncomfortable conversations to tell people to cut it out.

I know that concern about love at the office. At one point in my career I worked with my husband. By then we were already married, but we had conversations about being careful not to display affection in front of others. The challenge is that he has this terrible habit of opening doors for me, which gave us away every time. I suppose that having the same last name was also a dead giveaway.

For HR folk, February can be a terrible month. Our people are cooped up inside, in close quarters, and then there’s this silly thing called Valentines Day. There’s probably someone in our workforce who will do something lovely that has an impact on others and might possibly be misconstrued.

In my past, I worked with this great Executive who loved buying the women (all the women) something nice on Valentines Day. One year he went to the Estee Lauder counter at Holt Renfrew and bought all of us gift boxes. It was quite possibly the nicest office present I’d ever received. He delivered them to each staff personally.

As nice as this gift was, I struggled terribly with the gift itself. It was thoughtful and personal, and possibly sexist. What was he saying? That he didn’t like my lipstick or the scent I wore? In truth, he was just an older gentlemen and he enjoyed the company of women. I knew it wasn’t his intent to make it uncomfortable. He just had no idea that this gift was not Kosher, or if he did, he didn’t care.

When the gift came out, I worried that there’d be a parade of complaints whereby I’d have to deal with it as harassment. Worse, I worried that I might have to return it. What came back to me was that my job became steering him into a less personal way of celebrating Valentines Day in the future, which is sad really. In many ways, I regret that now because the gift was great and I will remember him fondly always.

Is there an unnecessary over-reaction to this kind of niceness? It was a gift based upon love, and after all, it isn’t romantic love, it is compassionate love. There is a difference.

According to Dr. Lynn Underwood, compassionate love has five key defining features including:

  • Free choice for the other
  • Some degree of accurate cognitive understanding of the situation, the other, and oneself
  • Valuing the other at a fundamental level
  • Openness and receptivity
  • Response of the heart

Many studies demonstrate the human need for compassionate love. In particular a report by Professors Sigal Barsale and Olivia O’Neill called “What’s Love Got to Do With It?: The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in the Long-term Care Setting“, found that employees who felt they worked in a loving, caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork. They showed up to work more often. Their research also demonstrated that this type of culture related directly to client outcomes, including improved patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to the ER. This can easily be extended to other environments, where caring leads to better attendance, fun and creativity.

Bottom line, we need love to be effective.

So this Valentine’s Day, the minute you feel that your team is just a little “too close” remember that when people feel like they are in a family they are at their best. Take the chocolates they give you and eat them generously, as was intended by the sender(s), and stop being the HR police.


  1. Bonni – good article and good point about the Estee Lauder gift – I would have felt the same.

    I got a little Valentine on my desk today – you’re top dog with a button of a dog – totally cheesy and totally awesome – from a colleague in another department. Made me feel all warm inside and inspired me to get on the love wagon. You’re right – the relationships at work inspire us to do better.

  2. Beautiful blog Bonni! We need to get real and live with the spirit and intent of action, not the letter of the law. I was shown some compassionate love today at work and it meant the world to me…

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