Gary Cattermole: Is it the end of the office romance?

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According to a recent survey commissioned to promote the recent DVD release of the TV series, How I Met Your Mother, relationships that start at work are more likely to stand the test of time, but are corporates happy for them to occur in the workplace?

Many businesses attempt to ban office romances, such as the fashion retailer American Apparel, which recently announced it had updated its ethics code to forbid romantic liaisons between colleagues. But is this the best approach to take or does it just drive workplace relationships underground?

Consider the fact that statistically you are more likely to meet a romantic partner at work – after all, we spend most of our waking hours there, rubbing shoulders with like-minded people who we share a common interest with: a potent combination. Is it realistic, or even fair, to think that we can stand in the way of something as fundamental as mutual attraction?

I would argue that the best way to approach the issue is to manage the romance should it occur. I would suggest that driving relationships underground is going to create more problems than it will solve. In most cases, another colleague will know that the relationship is taking place and could harbour concerns about nepotism or favouritism. It also forces those involved to be dishonest, which can raise suspicion, fuel office gossip and create a possible division in the workplace.

It could also result in the staff involved becoming very unhappy, leading to reduced productivity and a negative working environment. Also, consider what happens should the relationship turn sour? Teams can be destroyed because of unfavourable working environments and a scorned lover has the potential for vitriol. If you are aware of the relationship, you can hopefully help the couple to deal with working together should they split up. Perhaps one of them would prefer to move teams or work on a different project? Finding a convenient solution for all concerned is preferable to incurring the costs associated with recruitment and training should one of the two, or both, decide to leave because of the failed romance.

By being open about how you manage workplace relationships you are also further promoting active staff engagement; promoting a more open, fair, realistic and supportive working environment. This is hugely positive on a number of levels; you are sending a clear message to your staff that you view them as valuable, as human and that you care about their well being.

But you’re a business, not a dating agency!

I am not sure I would advocate actively encouraging workplace romances, which is the approach that billionaire, Richard Branson, reportedly takes with his staff on Necker Island – the couple who manage his luxury holiday resort met whilst working there and are now married with two children. However Necker isn’t your everyday workplace.

Statistically, 14 percent of relationships that begin in the workplace result in marriage but that leaves 86 percent that don’t. How are you going to deal with that?

Your prime concern should be protecting your well-performing workforce. When putting policies in place, bear in mind that it has been proven that happy staff result in a more productive workplace, and hopefully nothing makes a person happier than being in love. It is also sensible to consider that a failed romance can also make a person miserable!

Even if you wanted to, you cannot stand in the way of romance – attraction is a powerful and completely natural force – but you can put procedures in place to safeguard your business. Rather than banning relationships, it would be sensible to include a clear policy on office romances within your employee handbook.

Perhaps consider stating that, whilst relationships are not actively encouraged, they will be tolerated if they do not interfere with the couple’s ability to perform their duties at work, as outlined in their employment contract. After all, you employ people to undertake agreed tasks in a professional manner, so as long as they are still working in accordance to their contract, as an employer surely that is your main concern.

In some cases, couples will not work directly with one another, which makes managing the situation somewhat simpler. The real issues arise when you have a senior member of your team embarking on a relationship with someone who reports into them. This can make things a lot more complicated. To help manage the latter situation effectively, processes such as staff appraisals need to be very carefully considered. Ideally another member of staff should appraise the junior employee, or if no one else is capable of doing so, a member of HR or another impartial member of staff could sit in on the appraisal.

As long as your appraisal system is understood, well structured and accurately administered, you should be able to guard against any potential favouritism. Transparency and even-handedness are key to managing the process. If there is an understood and agreed structure in place for measuring staff performance, all staff should be measured against the same criteria.

Misconduct that contravenes the terms of a person’s contract should be dealt with according to your published company policies.

In my opinion, being in a relationship with a colleague should not constitute misconduct in itself, if all duties are being performed well, with professionalism and time keeping is being maintained. Should the relationship result in poor time keeping, obvious favouritism, poor performance or should have a negative impact on the working environment, the individuals concerned need to be managed in accordance to your company policies.

I believe the secret to managing office romances is to encourage honesty, to be open about your policy on romantic liaisons between colleagues, to be consistent and fair with all internal processes that involve the couple, especially appraisals and career progression and to act with the best interests of your workforce and business in mind – and always in accordance to a clear policy on staff misconduct.

For further information about staff surveys or employee engagement, please visit www.surveyinitiative.co.uk.

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