It can be a manager’s worst nightmare, and with good reason. Office romances open up a Pandora’s Box of legal, ethical and HR issues. Is it an extramarital affair or unencumbered? Is there a power differential between the players, which is particularly problematic if it’s between a supervisor and a subordinate? This can lead to issues of favouritism if things go well, bullying if they don’t and even sexual harassment claims if the romance turns sour. Then there’s loss of trust and cohesion among team members, jealousy, the risk of losing key talent if things don’t work out, as well as office gossip.
Surveys show that close to 80 per cent of employees have had an office affair, and more than 40 per cent of partnerships (long-term relationships) begin in the workplace. That means there’s a greater than 50 per cent chance this relationship ends, often badly, and probably while these two people are still working together. Some companies have tried to forbid office romances, but this usually just drives them underground and pushes people away. Sooner or later every manager has to deal with this issue, so it’s best to tackle it head on. Here are a few important considerations.
Policy, policy, policy
If you don’t have a company policy on this matter, get one by consulting with an HR consultant. An effective policy response has to tread the line between respect for people’s rights to privacy and autonomy, and the need for professional boundaries. The exception to this is where a relationship has crossed hierarchical boundaries and risks falling foul of sexual harassment or bullying laws.
Your policy should outline what is expected of romantic partners in terms of professional behaviour, discretion and workplace participation. It should also outline what happens if there is a conflict of interest or responsibilities.
Secrecy is a big problem. No matter how careful the participants are, sooner or later the rest of the team will become aware of the relationship. By encouraging disclosure of relationships, and making it clear that there will not be negative consequences, the issues that arise can be dealt with quickly rather than left to fester until it’s too late to intervene.
Remember 40 per cent of partnerships began at work, so when they do work out there are real benefits for some businesses. Having happily involved workers can bring stability to your workforce. By finding ways to accommodate these relationships, such as interdepartmental transfers, you can retain talent and improve loyalty.
Office romances have always occurred, and they always will. There’s no doubt that they are problematic, but ignoring them is likely to lead to discord, talent loss and even legal suits. Managers need to treat them as a reality of business life and act accordingly.