Working relationships | What is the etiquette around at-work romance?

What is the etiquette around at-work romance?

Having a workplace crush isn’t a new phenomenon. However, when that crush turns into a fully-fledged romance, this can have a few interesting consequences for employers.

Many people meet their ‘other half’ from work. After all, work is where we spend most of our waking hours, so it makes sense that employees would develop meaningful relationships with one another that goes beyond being only colleagues or friends.

Interestingly, research indicates a large 82% of employees don’t report their workplace romances to their employer. A main reason for this, the study reveals, is that employees feel awkward approaching their employer to make them aware. And because their employer doesn’t have a specific policy on this type of scenario, many feel it’s not necessary to make their manager aware.

For those employers who do find out two of their staff are dating, there might be some difficult factors to navigate – this is particularly pressing considering between 24% and 75% of employees admit to having engaged in a workplace romance at some point in their career.

Should you create a policy?

Call it invasive, but there are many reasons - including favouritism, harassment, assault, and the dismantling of team - why you might want to consider creating a policy around workplace relationships.

“Workplace relationships are certainly not uncommon, and many see the start of a happy family life,” says Rob Fisher, Managing & HR Director at Strategi Solutions. “However, there are also many that end badly, and it is important for employers to be aware of how to handle these situations professionally and sensitively. Whilst there is no statutory legislation stopping relationships at work, it doesn’t mean that organisations can’t introduce a policy on the matter.

“For example, it may be that line managers have to be informed of any relationship or that line managers can’t manage anyone with whom they have a relationship with. Introducing a policy makes it very clear to employees on what to do should the situation arise and it also helps support managers on how to deal with the matter, particularly those who have not dealt with the situation previously.

Work romantic relationships can also change the dynamic of a team and working culture – being aware of how these relationships are impacting other members of staff, and ensuring favouritism or corruption doesn’t arise because of the relationships is crucial to maintaining a healthy culture.

Fisher continues: “HR can support managers on this topic by training line managers on how to deal with a situation and also be somewhere that can help play a more neutral role should problems be caused by a relationship. Honesty is key for all in a topic such as this and it is important to ensure that a professional standard can be maintained whatever the eventual outcome.

“Relationships within team members can impact wider team members and it is important that everyone within an organisation is clear on behaviour that can be expected. Situations like this can often lead to teasing but it is very important that people understand that banter that could be considered discriminatory could have very serious consequences.”

But enforcing ‘rules’ around this type of scenario can be challenging, and ultimately, you can’t control what your employees do in their private lives. Above everything, ensuring your workforce understand that once they come into work they are in a professional environment, and should behave as such, is a good place to start in encouraging a continued healthy environment.

“Of course, you must treat employees like the adults they are, so a blanket ban on any relationships in the workplace is not likely to go down well,” says Kate Palmer, HR advice & consultancy director at Peninsula. “With a very high percentage of people meeting their significant other in the workplace, chances are you’d be fighting a losing battle. But there are steps an employer can take to ensure professional behaviour at all times when in the workplace. Even if you’re not speaking to, or in the midst of a blazing row with, your partner when you both get to work.

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“A relationships at work policy can help. This should set out clear, comprehensive guidelines on the company’s stance on inter-office relationships and highlight expected standards of behaviour. It could include guidelines such as banning senior and delegate relationships, requiring disclosure of relationships, or for seniors to move positions when such relationships develop. Having employees sign and date this policy serves as evidence that they understand and acknowledge these guidelines should any of these situations arise within the office.

“Finally, make sure that all employees are aware of your sexual harassment policies and their correlation with office romance. This can help reduce liability should romantic involvements come to an end.”

These factors may seem like an extreme response, but safeguarding your employees and company are the most important thing when professional relationships become more personal. Creating a policy around relationships, and ensuring employees understand the need for professionalism, may be a valid solution to the potential negative consequences of this type of relationship. Although, trusting your workforce to make the correct decisions in-line with what is right for both them and their professional development is also a viable option – this is ultimately down to the size of your company and what you’re willing to make staff commit to.

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