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What to do about office romances this Valentine's Day?

Love is in the Air (Conditioning Unit): Office Romances and How to Manage Them

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Grab your dozen luxury red roses, Barry White mix-tape and let your inner Keats or Byron free because things are about to get… romantic! That’s right, for the big V Day, we thought we’d take a look at the impact of lust, love and loathing in the modern workplace and answer the question ‘ what to do about office romances?’. 

Traditionally, HR and management have often considered office romances to be bad for business and thus frowned upon. Even so, that hasn’t stopped them becoming one of the most stereotypical ways of meeting a partner, right behind eyes meeting from across the bar. We all know a story of so-and-so at the Christmas party or similar right? 

But after decades of movies and sitcoms playing with the idea (Tim and Dawn from The Office, anyone?) it’s not too surprising that the general perception of dating between coworkers has improved somewhat in recent years. A recent study by employee rewards brand Perkbox showed that the vast majority (63%) of UK workers believe that romance between colleagues shouldn’t mean losing your job. And considering we spend a third of our lives in the presence of our colleagues, it’s absolutely understandable that love may blossom. 

How does romance blossom at work?

The possible risks of intimate relationships at work are well known. Most breakups are at least fairly awkward in some regard, and that discomfort is only magnified when the pair of you then have to work in close proximity for the foreseeable future. Hell, even great relationships have their less than stellar days too, where tensions are high and frostiness replaces fondness for a few hours at least. 

Then there’s the gossip. A survey of well over 5000 UK workers found that 31% said they would feel judged for dating a coworker, despite also finding that these relationships are fairly common. More than a fifth of respondents had met their partner through work, compared to only 18% through friends. And there is a strong gender divide here, with the negative perceptions around workplace relationships being just one of the ways female professionals can experience sexism in the workplace.

But the issue at the heart of it is the potential for unethical behaviour, especially when the relationship is secret, and when it is between personnel with different levels of authority (particularly in the wake of #MeToo where the world saw clearly the impact that an imbalance of power can have in the workplace). As McDonald Murholme principal Andrew Jewell said of law firms dealing with the issue of workplace romance, ‘It wouldn’t be controversial, I think, for a law firm to say that if a partner was to enter into a relationship with an employee of the firm, that they’d have to notify the firm. I think that’s quite reasonable for reasons of conflict but also to protect the more junior employee.’

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Especially in such a competitive sector as law, sexual relationships between colleagues of different levels of seniority have obvious potential to create a conflict of interests. Worry over “corporate climbing” is one of the reasons people tend to gossip about these relationships in the first place. When an associate is dating a partner, any advancement they make in their career is likely to be viewed through the lens of said relationship by some people, unless there is a clear framework for maintaining professionalism with everything totally above board. This goes across all industries. 

The problem is that most (64%) of office romances are kept secret, according to a survey highlighted by Forbes in 2019. On top of that, only 16% were comfortable with making their relationship publicly known to everyone including higher-ups. Conflicts of interest aren’t the only form of unethical behaviour that can stem from secretly dating a coworker though. The survey also found that nearly a fifth of employees had cheated on a partner with a colleague, and over forty percent had known colleagues who’d had a workplace affair.

No wonder then that many businesses still operate a zero-tolerance policy to dating your colleagues. Some, are a little more innovative with their policies. Take Google, Facebook and Airbnb for example, who operate a policy of ‘you can ask out any colleague once, but only once’. And yes, it seems a vague answer along the lines of “Sorry, I’m trimming my beard tonight” counts as a “no” and you’re chance has gone. 

Office romances are extremely common, though often kept secret.
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But although some firms and other businesses might have a no dating policy in their employee contract, there are others that seem to accommodate for transparently conducted office romances. One case study cited by Harvard Business Review about a couple named Heather and Alex, who decided to come clean to HR as soon as they knew it was serious. ‘We said something like, “We’re dedicated to the company and we don’t want this to affect our careers but we fell in love. What should we do?”’

The result was that HR reorganised things so that Alex wasn’t in charge of Heather, and would not be asked to advocate for her during performance reviews, and the two eventually got married. What a nice little Valentine’s Day story.

So with attitudes apparently softening to the idea, and given that demanding employees abstain is about as effective as a prohibition-era liquor ban, perhaps the next step forward for firms is to develop frameworks to make sure romantic relationships in the workplace are conducted honestly while maintaining professionalism. With how common office romances have become, this may be the best way to maximise engagement by dealing with potential distractions and ensure a trustworthy workplace.

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