HR · 17 May 2019

The SME employer’s guide to managing an office romance

The ups and downs of an office romance and what employers can do about it
The ups and downs of an office romance and what employers can do about it

What could be more reassuring than a smiling face greeting you at the door after a long day at work? For nearly half of the working population in the UK, that vision of home life went out of style years ago. Welcome to the new age of office romance, where 42% of Brits fantasise about dating someone at work, and for 14%, the object of their affection is their boss.

A little office romance never killed anyone, but in a small business, it could be devastating. Here’s how to navigate the minefield, if you are so inclined.

Why do fools fall in love? The office edition

Engineers, builders, and bankers are most likely to couple-up with their ‘work wife’ or ‘work husband’, according to a new study from Adzuna.

The actual data reveals the figure is as high as 4 in 10 workers who not only throw caution to the wind when it comes to romance at work but also end up in long term relationships with their colleagues.

74% of flings with a colleague ended with marriage or children.

“Despite living in a world of Tinder and online dating, the old-fashioned office romance is alive and well in the UK in 2019,” says Adzuna co-founder Andrew Hunter.

“It seems that long hours spent together at the office, common interests and a shared work ethic are key drivers for workplace romance.”

But is this healthy, or some sort of dystopian version of Stockholm Syndrome thanks to an always-on workaholic corporate culture?

There are perfectly good reasons why coworkers can fall for each other, David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of the mental well-being app Remente tells the Telegraph.

Working in an office gives you the opportunity to get to know someone in a way that you can’t from “swipe right” dating apps. In fact, 28% of working Brits met their current partner at work, with success rates of office liaisons nearly double that of meeting somebody online (15%).

“Working with someone daily, you will see how they respond to a problem, act under pressure, and interact with other coworkers,” he says. “It is also easy to start sharing personal information and commiserating about difficulties faced in the office–perhaps over a lunch or after-work drinks.”

But are those feelings real? Research shows that we also tend to fall for people who are similar to ourselves, and the more familiar you are with the person, the more likely it is that you’ll become attracted to one another. “Most adults spend a minimum of 1,680 hours per year in the office, so you are likely to spend more time with your coworkers than almost anyone else,” Brudö adds. It could very well be a case of familiarity breeding attraction.

In fact, the Adzuna survey reveals that long hours and away days can often allow office romances to blossom.

Almost a quarter of liaisons started at a work excursion, while 22% were caused by working late hours together in the office. Work drinks (18%) and the office Christmas party (16%) also proved conducive to office flings.

But this is not always the case: a fifth of those who had a romantic relationship with a colleague said they simply grew close over time.

According to counsellor Gregory L. Jantz, the intensity created at work situation can mirror the intensity we experience in sexual relationships. This is from where confusing feelings can arise. “Such feelings of attachment and unity can be similar enough to cause confusion,” Jantz writes in a blog post for Psychology Today. “Even if the conscious mind does not acknowledge the connection, often the subconscious will. One or both partners may find themselves suddenly considering the other from a sexual point of view.”

Spending more time together tends to break down defences between people faster, and that doesn’t necessarily result in romantic intimacy.

It is important to be clear about your boundaries, and work out what you really want from a work relationship, says Jantz. Are you just friends, or is there something more? Sometimes the lines can blur, and it’s tricky to work it out. But it’s better to think it over before something happens that you might regret. Especially in the context of an SME where the hours are long and intense, and the bottom line precariously dependent on the productivity and passion of each individual employee.

The downside of dating at work

“There is a long-standing rule that you should not date your coworker,” Brudö adds. “The reasons are many: you risk losing your job, becoming uncomfortable at work, or creating office drama that could hurt your professional reputation.”

The fall out could be potentially career-ending for the people involved, and dent the bottom-line for an SME. Knowledge of the effects of a soured office romance can add emotional stress on the people in the relationship.

A similar survey from totaljobs last year shows that about 60% of Brits in office romances felt the pressure to act more professionally to counter their personal affections. 51% said they were concerned about gossip, and one in three feel judged by their other colleagues.

The survey also found that a woman dating her manager is more likely to affect her career than a man dating his manager. This is specifically seen in terms of promotions, salaries, and bonuses, in addition to relationships with other colleagues.

Let’s also not ignore power dynamics at play. The Adzuna study reveals that 1 in 7 Brits fantasise about dating their boss.

42% confess to fantasising about somebody in their workplace, with 67% saying this is someone in a higher position than themselves and a third of these crushing on their boss.

Power is often a factor in the allure, with nearly half of those who fantasise about somebody superior saying this contributes to the appeal.

And the attraction doesn’t stop at mere fantasy: of those UK workers who have had an in-office romantic liaison, 41% have dated a senior colleague and 22% their boss.

Furthermore, a third of those who had a romantic fling at work said that it helped them get ahead in their career, suggesting worrying levels of unprofessionalism and possible bias towards workers who take part in office liaisons.

The SME employer’s guide to managing an office romance

If your business is growing, chances are so is your team. The more people you have on board, the more likely the chance of workplace romances and late night liaisons (not to mention drama!). Can your business handle the unpredictable impact personal relationships may have on working relationships?

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

How do you create a company policy on office romance? Is it a clear-cut ‘no’, a greyer ‘declare it to your manager’, or ‘don’t ask don’t tell’? Here are a few guidelines to help you create a company policy on office romance that could get you the buy-in of your employees while keeping your P&L clear of romantic turbulence.

Do your employees know the risks?

There’s always the chance that any relationship won’t work out and that there will be hurt feelings on one or both sides. In the work context, there’s the added hurdle of potential conflicts of interest. There are also potential conflicts of interest. In the world of psychotherapy, this is called a dual relationship principle, where therapists absolutely cannot have any relationships with patients beyond their professional one for the sake of objectivity and ethics.

Clearly the SME office environment isn’t the same as a therapist’s office, but the duty of care and code of ethics still come into play.

Most people are close friends with colleagues, for example, but this can complicate decision making. If your employees start dating, do they put the company’s or individual’s best interests first? Additionally, how can anyone be sure that employees aren’t exploiting power dynamics or another coworker’s vulnerability? There are also reputational risks. Colleagues may think a manager in a relationship with a junior is giving them preferential treatment, which can impact how the rest of your 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 romance?

If your employees are aware of these risks and still want to pursue love at work, it’s important that they know your stance on the topic as the boss. Many companies not only frown-upon, but outright prohibit employees from dating coworkers, customers, or suppliers. Some require disclosure from the outset, and some turn a blind eye to the whole thing.

Make sure you explore how you personally feel about your team members dating, and think through how all of the scenarios may affect your business.

Once you’re sure on your stance, put together an official company policy and make sure 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 over-the-top controlling, especially if businesses expect employees to adhere to 40-hour weeks.

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

Stay away from your boss and your direct reports

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

This is where conflicts of interest are most obvious. It’s hard to be objective when giving someone you’re dating a performance review, for example.

News of an office romance between employees and managers can affect team morale and damage your confidence. While boss-employee romances do happen, and sometimes those relationships do work out, it’s a minefield to tread in its own right, and can take away precious time and brain space your team could better channel actually working.

Do they feel tempted to hide it?

While your employees’ personal time and relationships are their business, it’s important to encourage them to be open about the relationship, at least with you. This might be tough 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 positively. 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 don’t need to feel like they have to announce every little office crush or crazy hook-up, 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,” could mean a world of a difference.

Putting the relationship on record also protects your employees and your team’s morale if the relationship goes sour.

Set boundaries

While 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 in two different studies that “people who frequently witness flirting… report feeling less satisfied in their jobs, and they feel less valued by their company. They’re more likely to give a negative appraisal of the work environment, and they may even consider leaving.”

While the research may not be causal, it suggests that team members who witness open displays of romance in a work setting may feel uncomfortable and demotivated.

As unromantic as it may seem, it’s important that your employees have an open conversation that defines the relationship, outlines boundaries, and how to manage and mitigate risks.

In the event of a breakup

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

Setting your company policy on office romance

With those guidelines in mind, we’ve put together a cheat sheet of dos and don’ts when setting out a company policy on office romance. Run through these with your employees so that everyone is aware of the company’s stance.

Do:

  • Know the many risks of getting involved with someone at work
  • Familiarise yourself with your company’s policies – and the rationale behind them
  • Talk through what you’ll do if the relationship doesn’t work out

Don’t:

  • Pursue a coworker 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

Have you had an office romance? How do you feel about the idea of your employees dating? Share your experience with us.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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