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Romantic relationships in the workplace – what should you do?

While you focus on strategies to maximise performance and engagement in your business, could your employees be engaging in extra-curricular activities?

The workplace can be a fertile place for spawning intimate relationships and, according to a survey by in 2014, 38% of respondents have dated a co-worker at least once. In 2013, reported the results of a survey conducted over a 7 year period, suggesting this rate is actually 59%.

These results should come as no surprise, considering that the workplace is a social environment where employees spend vast periods of their lives working in close proximity with colleagues. It would be easy to think of these relationships as simply ‘flings’ but many can be deep rooted and sincere.

In fact, 31% of CareerBuilder’s participants stated their workplace relationships lead to marriage, just like the Obamas who met at a Chicago law firm, or Brad and Angelina’s public romance which began on a film set. With such famous role models for workplace relationships, does it really matter if any of your employees are romantically involved?

Trust, communication, support and loyalty are characteristics of healthy and successful relationships and there is a plethora of research which suggests these are fundamental to a productive and successful working environment. However, when relationships get too close, these performance drivers can become casualties and have a negative effect on productivity, collaboration, equality (perceived or otherwise) and staff retention, especially when the relationship crosses the lines of responsibility.

10 helpful hints

So what should you do when you become aware that employees are making ‘doe eyes’ at each other across the factory or office floor? We have provided 10 useful points for your consideration to help you approach this delicate issue.

  • Establish the facts. If you are unsure if there is a relationship, monitor the situation until you are certain
  • If you are concerned about employees becoming romantically involved, ask yourself why. It’s unlikely you can justify keeping all relationships platonic, so before you take action make sure that there is, or could be, an adverse impact on the organisation
  • Think about the consequences of a relationship breaking down; tears, tantrums, and claims of harassment and bullying are entirely possible. Compile a list of reasons based on business needs for wishing to intervene and consider what steps should be taken
  • Has the relationship crossed responsibility levels? If it involves a line manager and subordinate, there are several potential risks which need to be considered and addressed. Could favouritism be an issue? Or confidentiality? Just as great a risk of these occurring is other employees perceiving these to be the case, and the impact that could have on trust, teamwork and collaboration?
  • Has the relationship adversely affected performance? Assuming that you have the appropriate monitoring policies in place to review their computer use, it may be wise to ensure they are not spending their time sending sweet nothings to each other through your computer networks
  • Before intervening on a suspected relationship, consider any precedents that have already been set so that you can have a consistent approach. Has the corporate culture demonstrated behaviour which suggests that close relationships are acceptable? Are there any other relationships ongoing? Do you employ individuals who are married or related?
  • If you believe romantic relationships would have an adverse impact on the business, consider constructing a policy for dealing with such occurrences, as are commonly found in educational and medical establishments. It is advisable to ensure that your policy balances the needs of the organisation with an employee’s human right to a private life, even in the workplace
  • You may decide that a policy is too heavy handed and choose instead to adopt a common sense approach – talk it through with the people involved, if responsibility lines are crossed, change the reporting structure after explaining the benefits to those involved
  • A word of caution. It is statistically more likely for women to be the junior employee in workplace relationships, so moving the junior party could result in a claim of sex discrimination. An employer will indirectly discriminate against a female employee where: a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) is applied equally to men and women but,
    • It is such that it would be to the detriment of a considerably larger proportion of women than of men, and
    • It cannot be shown to be justifiable irrespective of the sex of the person to whom it is applied, and
    • It is to her detriment. If the detriment is established, an employer must show that the PCP was justified. To satisfy the test of justification the employer must show that the measures taken:
      • Correspond to a real need on the part of the employer;
      • Were appropriate with a view to achieving the objectives pursued; and
      • Were necessary to that end.
  • Consider whether it would be more appropriate to implement a policy that simply states that, should a relationship be shown to adversely affect the organisation or its people, you reserve the right to take remedial action.

Whichever route you decide to take, remember that the reason for doing so must be to address a ‘real business need’ and the measures taken must not have a disproportionate or ‘disparate’ impact on women, or indeed men. As long as it does, you can turn your focus to saving your hard earned money to put into those office collections for the wedding gifts!

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