Office romances can be hard work
Office romances may seem fine, but they can be tricky when love breaks down
Employers should discourage any relationship that involves senior people dating people below them
While some of us might have met our partners through online dating or when our eyes locked across a crowded bar, the workplace is still central to romance.
According to a survey carried out by recruitment website CareerBuilder.com in February 2015, 37 per cent of workers in the US said they had dated a colleague, with 30 per cent of those liaisons leading to marriage. Another study carried out by Vault.com suggested an even higher number of couples meeting through work with 51 per cent of respondents admitting to having an office romance at some point in their career.
Closer to home it seems that we’re not averse to trysts with colleagues either. A survey of more than 1,000 adults carried out by Coyne Research on behalf of Irish Life last year found that 22 per cent of respondents had had an office romance at some stage while over a third of respondents admitted to having had a crush on a fellow employee.
Among those famous couples who have found love at work are Barack and Michelle Obama, who first met while working together at a law firm in Chicago in 1989, and Bill and Melinda Gates, for whom romance blossomed after meeting at Microsoft in 1987.
The workplace may be becoming a more critical place than ever to find love, as many of us now work longer hours and the boundaries between our work and our personal lives have blurred.
“As people are spending more and more time in the workplace and companies encourage staff to socialise together, it is more likely that relationships will develop,” says David Bell, managing director of The HR Department, a Dublin-based consultancy.
His views are echoed by Lisa O’Hara, a counsellor who formerly worked at Relationships Ireland.
“Because we spend so much of our waking life at work, it would seem like a natural conclusion that many people would meet their partners in the work environment,” she says, noting the rise of social media and messaging platforms are adding yet another dimension to workplace relations.
“Nowadays, office romances are more easily accelerated by social media where couples are becoming closer quicker with online flirting and texting,” O’Hara says.
Many of us see little wrong in innocent workplace romances. If anything, they may provide a little tittle-tattle for those sitting on the sidelines watching and a good incentive to get to work for those involved in one. But they can also be distracting, cause interpersonal conflicts and lead to claims of discrimination, sexual harassment, discrimination and/or favouritism.
Negative impact “In addition to the legal consequences that could arise, more often than not office relationships can have a negative impact on the workplace as they may spur gossip, rumours and innuendo, which can be disruptive. They can also affect the reputation of the company if customers or clients are exposed to it,” says Bell.
It was once common for organisations to try to ban workplace romances for these very reasons.
However, as Aoife Bradley, a partner at LK Shields employment, pensions and employee benefits team notes, this is not only unlawful but also unwise.
She says that outright bans on office romances may be considered to be in breach of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that persons are entitled to a right to respect for their private and family life.
“A rule that prohibits romances between co-workers may be deemed to be invasive, inappropriate and unnecessary, and it is difficult to see how employers could justify such a policy. On a practical note, it would also be virtually impossible for an employer to police such a policy,” she says.
“Realistically, if two people are involved in a romantic relationship and one or both is critical to the success of the business, any exceptions that are made in this regard will expose the employer to discrimination claims.”
While outright bans may be inadvisable, Bradley says that attempting to introduce guidelines can also be troublesome.
“Given that any intervention by an employer into the private life of an employee could be considered as an invasion of his or her right to privacy, this is a difficult subject. Rather than impose explicit guidelines, it seems to me that the safest way for employers to protect themselves against a potential fallout from office romances is to ensure their existing policies and procedures around areas such as bullying, harassment and discrimination are robust to address problems should they arise,” she says.
Strong policies Mary Connaughton, managing director at CIPD Ireland, a professional body for HR and people development, agrees.
“I have not found many organisations trying to formally manage or curtail office romances. More than guidelines, companies need to have strong policies on staff behaving with dignity and respect to all colleagues,” she says.
Nonetheless, Ms Connaughton says that while helpful, there can be a gap between the expression of such principles and day-to-day behaviour in the workplace. She says managers need to be aware of any possible fallout from office romances.
“While employees in relationships may choose not to share it with those around them, difficult situations and inappropriate behaviours may emerge, particularly when a relationship breaks up. This often means managers and colleagues have to be alert to and able to sensitively deal with emotional upset, unhappiness and lack of cooperation. The need for co-operation, dignity and respect to all co-workers will need to be reinforced,” she says.
Bell suggests that guidelines around what is and is not socially acceptable in the workplace can be helpful both for managers and employees in such moments.
“Perhaps the most important factors are when a couple has an argument or splits up. In such a situation it would take a very professional employee to keep their private life separate from business matters. More likely is the possibility that the couple may act out their feud on an employer’s time, leading to productivity issues, especially when co-workers are pulled into the argument and feel they need to take sides,” he says.
While the rise of technology has helped many a relationship to flourish both inside and outside of work, it has also been used in negative ways when things go awry.
Bradley cites the case of Wilson v Ferguson as an example. This was an Australian case involving two co-workers whose relationship ended.
The defendant subsequently posted a number of intimate photographs and videos of his former partner on social media where many of their work colleagues could see them. He ended up having his employment terminated and the woman was awarded 48,400 Australian dollars (€30,270) in damages.
“This case highlights the increasingly common issue of cyberbullying in the workplace and how such issues can arise in the context of an office romance which goes awry,”says Bradley.
While somewhat cautious on the need for guidelines around office romance, Bradley does believe employers can and should provide clear training on what is permitted in the workplace between co-workers engaged in a romantic relationship.
Guidelines Moreover, she also says that if an employer decides to introduce specific guidelines on office romances, one way to go about it is to require workers to sign up to so-called consensual relationship agreements or love contracts. These require employees to disclose to their employer romantic relationships with work colleagues.
“This is a concept which has gained some traction in the US in recent years,” says Bradley.
Bell for his part believes that employee disclosure of a budding romance is important, particularly if individuals concerned are employed at different levels in a company. “Workplace romance may become more likely as work and personal life becomes increasingly interlinked. As there is a certain inevitability about this, employers and employees need to be aware of what will and will not be tolerated,” he said. “In such situations employees will need to keep their relationship out of the office as much as possible and not involve colleagues or customers in their personal lives by discussing their relationship or engaging in displays of affection in the workplace,” Bell says.
“Employers, meanwhile, should discourage any relationship that involves senior people dating people below them in the organisation because of the various issues that can arise.”
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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