Career Advice Legal Case studies for employers

Tough love: How to deal with office romances

The Issues

Workplace romances occur frequently and are a source of concern for many businesses. There is increased social acceptance, however, of such relationships – particularly among younger employees.

For many employees, the workplace is a primary place for social interaction, particularly in sectors where unsociable hours are commonplace, and the line between “work” and “life” has become increasingly blurred. In this context, it should come as no surprise that employees find intimacy at work.

While employers have a legal obligation to enforce rules that ensure a safe working environment free from discrimination and sexual harassment, they may  also seek to impose rules regarding consensual relationships between colleagues.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Personal relationships between employees at different levels in the organisational structure may lead to favouritism (or the perception of favouritism), which can have an impact on staff morale and result in the loss of valuable talent. When individuals feel that they have been overlooked, they may decide to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Workplace relationships may also pose risks to the protection of confidential information, particularly when one party has access to confidential or sensitive data, such as personnel files or staffing proposals.

Some managers may also feel compelled to coordinate the couple’s shift patterns, holidays and leave arrangements.

While this may not present too many difficulties in a large workplace, smaller teams may have less flexibility, due to the need for business continuity.

The Solutions

In order to manage these and other issues, employers may choose to adopt a policy that balances two imperatives. The policy should ensure that workplace relationships do not adversely affect the business or staff morale, and that employees’ right to privacy is respected.

The policy should outline the company’s expectations regarding personal relationships between employees, focus on the types of relationships that might raise concerns, and explain why the businesses considers it necessary to implement such rules.

An obligation to report personal relationships is likely to be seen as an unwelcome intrusion into employees’ private lives. However, employees who understand the reasons for this requirement are more likely to comply.

In any event, the obligation to report  should be limited to those in relationships that will likely give rise to legitimate business concerns.

Steps should be taken to ensure that information is disclosed on a strictly “need to know” basis and does not become office gossip.

The policy should also set out the measures that the company may take to reduce any risks to the business that may arise from the relationship, such as reassigning duties and reporting lines.

Employers should think creatively to reach potential solutions and, where possible, involve the parties concerned when working through the options. Dismissal should be treated as a last resort.

All employees should receive training on the policy and steps should be taken to ensure that the policy is implemented and enforced consistently across the business.

Managers also need to be aware of the possibility of relationship breakdowns playing out in the workplace and the potential impact on all parties, as well as their teams.

Both short- and long-term options should be considered when addressing any strain on existing working arrangements, such as offering alternative duties or counselling services where appropriate.

The Conclusion

While managing intra-office relationships can be daunting for the HR department and managers alike, it is important that employers do not ignore the possibility of their employees having personal relationships with their colleagues.

By proactively establishing clear guidelines and implementing them in a fair and respectful manner, employers can manage the potential impact of workplace relationships in a way that safeguards the business’s interests while minimising the intrusion on employees’ private lives. 

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Tough love: How to deal with office romances .