What’s your stance on romance?

Despite living in a world of online dating, the old-fashioned office romance is alive and well in the UK. In fact, research reveals that as many as 4 in 10 workers end up in long term relationships with one of their colleagues.

It seems that long hours spent together at the office, common interests and a shared work ethic are key drivers for workplace romance. But what happens when people find their relationship becoming more than just professional? Should romance and work ever mix?

A survey reported that three quarters of respondents have considered embarking on a romance in the office and more than half had had a relationship with at least one colleague. Perhaps it’s even more surprising then that 84 per cent of the same people believed office romances have a negative impact on productivity.

There are certainly risks. If relationships turn sour this can lead to potentially serious situations, including sexual harassment or even unfair dismissal claims. But contractual clauses forbidding office relationships are unlikely to work and they could also create the awkward possibility that highly valued employees have to be disciplined for falling in love.

Very interestingly, rules are also evolving because of the #MeToo movement. For example, at Facebook and Google, you can only ask a co-worker out once and if the person says no (or even if it’s not a clear yes), you’re not allowed to ask again.

What’s important is encouraging employees to keep work and personal life separate, and to stay professional both when things are going well and if they break up.

As well as sharing your company policy on the issue with all of your employees, it is also vital for employers to have robust bullying and harassment procedures in place should things go wrong – and to act upon any complaints swiftly and appropriately.

As obvious as it might seem, the more people that you employ, the more likely the chance of workplace romances happening. But can your business handle the unpredictable impact that personal relationships can have on working relationships?

If your employees do develop romantic relationships with each other, it’s important that you invest time and effort in creating a consistent stance on the matter.

Is it a clear-cut ‘no’, a middle of the road ‘declare it to your manager’ or ‘don’t ask don’t tell’? Here are some guidelines that will help you to create a company policy on workplace relationships that makes your position to employees clear and help you to navigate clear of any romantic turbulence.

Do your employees know the risks?
There’s always the chance that any relationship won’t work out, but there is also the potential for a conflict of interest.

Of course, many people form close friendships with colleagues but this can complicate decision making. This can become more significant if your employees start dating. Will this mean they put the company’s or individual’s best interests first? Additionally, how can anyone be sure that employees aren’t exploiting their position or the vulnerability of a co-worker? There are also reputational risks. For example, colleagues may think a manager in a relationship with a junior is giving them preferential treatment and this can impact on how the rest of the team sees the manager’s decision making capabilities and professionalism. It can also affect the junior employee, whose success may be constantly overshadowed by doubt from others.

Do they know your stance on office relationships?
If your employees are aware of these risks but still want to pursue a relationship at work, it’s important that they know your company stance on the issue. Many companies not only frown upon but categorically prohibit employees from dating co-workers, customers or suppliers. Some require disclosure from the outset, whilst some turn a blind eye to it.

As an employer, you should make sure that you explore how you feel about your team members dating and think through how all of the scenarios may affect your business.

Once you are sure about your stance, put together an official company policy and make sure that every employee is aware of the terms. Build an open and transparent communications channel so if any of your employees have already violated a policy, they feel comfortable confessing to it and moving on, rather than covering it up and sneaking around.

Nowadays, more companies are removing regulations to dating colleagues because these rules are hard to enforce and seem excessively controlling, especially if businesses expect employees to work 40 hour weeks.

Boss/employee relationships to be avoided

It is universally accepted that it’s a bad idea to get involved with anybody who is in your chain of command, either up or down, on account of the ethical dilemma of either party exploiting the dynamics of power.

This is where conflicts of interest are most obvious, for example, it’s hard to be objective when giving someone you’re dating a performance review. A romance between an employee and a manager can affect team morale and damage confidence. While boss/employee romances do happen, and sometimes those relationships do work out, there is undoubtedly a minefield to negotiate.

Do they feel tempted to hide it?
While your employees’ personal relationships are their business, it’s important to encourage them to be open about any workplace relationship, at least with you. This might be difficult to follow through, especially if it’s early days and the employees in question aren’t sure about where the relationship will go.

Letting people know reduces the awkwardness and increases the chance that they’ll receive the news favourably. This could mitigate a lot of the negatives of the situation, so stress this point with your employees early on.

Give your employees the freedom to come to you, while they certainly should not feel like they have to announce every single romantic involvement or fling. They should feel comfortable in saying something like “We went on a few dates, but I’m sure you can understand that I don’t want to get into more detail about our personal lives,” this could make a huge difference. Also, putting a relationship on record can protect your employees and your team’s morale if the relationship goes sour.

Set boundaries

Whilst being open about your relationship is a positive thing in many cases, stress that your employees don’t have to get into details or be subjected to public displays of affection at work. Research on flirting at work reveals that team members who witness open displays of romance in a work setting may feel uncomfortable and de-motivated.

It is important that your employees have an open conversation that defines the relationship, outlines boundaries and know how to manage and mitigate risks.

It’s also important to remember that harassment under the Equality Act can occur if someone else is upset by behaviour they witness, even if that behaviour is not directed at them.

In the event of a break-up
Of course, not every romance will work out and if your dating employees decide to break up, it’s best that they’re prepared for it. If they’ve been telling people about the relationship, they may need to tell people when it’s over in the most professional way as possible.

With these guidelines in mind, there are some key do’s and don’ts on office relationships that your employees should know about.

• Know the many risks of getting involved with someone at work.
• Familiarise yourself with your company’s policy and the reasoning behind it.
• Talk through what you’ll do if the relationship doesn’t work out.

• Pursue a co-worker if you’re not serious about a relationship.
• Date someone who you have a reporting relationship with.
• Try to hide the relationship from your manager or colleagues – after a certain point, it will only erode trust.

These guidelines and do’s and don’ts provide some of the key rationale for setting out your own company policy on workplace relationships. Once confirmed, you should then make sure that this policy is communicated to all of your employees so that everyone is fully aware of your company’s stance.

As with all workplace policy, Borders Employment Law can help you to develop your own company policy on managing romantic relationships in your organisation and if problems do arise we can also provide you with the right advice.