• Love at work: How to conduct an office relationship

  • 31 Jan 2014
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The HR-approved guide to managing a workplace romance

When office romances go wrong it is often HR that has to deal with the consequences. But, with more than half of the 550 HR professionals who responded to a People Management survey admitting that they had had a relationship at work, how do you ensure someone else doesn’t have to clear up your mess?

Ask yourself: Would you tell your mum?

One in five respondents to our survey have had an office relationship where one or both or them was already spoken for – a situation many would like to keep a secret and not just from colleagues. But if your romance would pass the parent test then in all likelihood there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“People will find each other attractive when they work together. It’s going to happen, that is the only thing you can be certain of,” says William Rogers, chief executive of radio group UKRD. Richard Crouch, director of HR, OD and communications at Somerset County Council, adds that it’s rare for romances to be a problem as “most people have a good understanding of what is right and what is wrong”.

Speak up if you’re dating your boss

If there’s one office dynamic that’s most likely to cause problems it’s when managers date a direct report - leaving the rest of the team prone to doubt every decision.

“If they have the slightest sense that there is any element of favouritism then you are in big trouble,” says Rogers. “While people say their private relationship is nothing to do with their jobs, the reality is you can’t really divorce the two and it will inevitably have an effect on others.”

Time to think about owning up, which says Crouch is what tends to happen in the majority of problematic situations. “Nine times out of 10 people will put their hand up and say rather than end up having management intervene.”

Protect your credibility

A relationship between peers, especially when they work in different departments, may not cause much concern in the average office unless there’s a clear conflict of interest. But for HR there are added complications given the nature of the job – you can’t give impartial advice on a case when you’re dating one of the parties. 

And when that relationship is an illicit affair there is the added risk that your actions could have an adverse impact on both you and the department. “If you are having an extramarital affair, your professional credibility has to be undermined,” says Mike Williams, director of people development at De Vere Hotels and Village Urban Resorts.

Consider moving teams

No matter how good your relationship might seem now, the fallout could be horrible when it goes wrong, especially if you work in the same team. So consider taking action now rather than dealing with the consequences later.

“I actively sought employment in a different department when it became clear that my relationship was likely to flourish,” says one respondent to People Management’s survey. Ten years and one child later, she is still in the relationship and believes she made the right choice. “As an HR professional I am acutely aware of the potential conflicts that relationships at work can bring. Whilst I would not discourage people from entering into personal relationships at work, I would recommend that they keep their eyes open to the possible consequences of any future break up.”

Be discreet

It’s unlikely your organisation even has a policy on office romances – only one in five respondents to our survey said their organisation has one. But that doesn’t mean you can behave how you like. As Crouch says: “If there is a raging affair between a manager and employee, which everyone in the office knows about, then clearly that is unprofessional conduct.” Just because there is no policy, doesn’t mean there are no rules. Your office code of conduct is likely to cover workplace relationships, whether explicitly or implicitly, and being caught in flagrante in a meeting room is a definite no no, not to mention a likely case for gross misconduct. 

Read the feature Love at work: 'What's wrong with sex in the office?'

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  • I consider moral and religious justification for everything I do, and so as a Christian my concern is no. I may not stop colleagues from having affairs in workplace but it is out rightly wrong to do. People do get attracted to others, nothing is wrong with that only if they take it outside of the company, but flints within the organisation is shameless and disgusting to me. It is not in my company policy and never have I seen one in my seven years with the company. There should be discipline and respect for other people's feelings and stand in the company. Extra-marital affairs is just sickening to me, such should never be encouraged in an organisation. HR should be mindful of relationships that exist in the company, that it isn't to the detriment of others.