Donald MacKinnon: 12 top tips for managing office romance

Donald MacKinnon, director of legal services at Law At Work
Donald MacKinnon, director of legal services at Law At Work
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In the past, many employers have frowned on couples getting together during working hours as they feared that the distractions would result in disruption at work.

However, we now spend an increasing number of hours at work. More than 30 per cent of us are working over 48 hours a week, so it comes as no surprise that a third of relationships start at work.

Office romances are a fact of life and adopting an unrealistic approach to the management of such situations can leave employers in a tricky legal position. If two people are attracted to one another at work, a level headed and common-sense approach is always the best advice.

While some employers want to know about any work-based relationship, most simply want the two adults involved to manage their workload and for their relationship not to affect others. However, it is the breakdown of an office romance that the majority of the employers we deal with are mostly concerned about. Increasingly our clients are becoming aware of the potential issues that a badly ended relationship at work can cause and requesting bespoke office romance policies to prevent potential issues becoming problems.

Six top tips for employers managing office romance

I just need some space. Your staff should already know what is expected of them. As adults, if they decide to embark on an inter-office relationship, give them the same opportunity as someone beginning a relationship outside of the workplace. If their work is deteriorating because they are love sick, then address this in the same way you would do with any poor performance.

Two’s company, three’s a crowd. Don’t expect employees to alert you to a first date – this period is stressful enough without involving HR or the boss. If you really want to know if employees are dating, let everyone know at what stage they must alert you – if at all.

Don’t be like David Brent. Understand the hierarchy of the relationship. Have clear guidelines as to what happens if one person in the relationship is more senior or manages the other person, for example the manager has to move to another department.

Agony Aunt is not in your job description. Don’t gossip or become the “agony aunt”. If you are alerted to an office romance, do not discuss this with the rest of your organisation. Similarly, just because you are aware of the relationship, it doesn’t mean that the couple should turn to you for counselling.

Heartbreak Hotel. Have in place procedures that you can follow should an office romance turn sour and make sure that all staff know what these are when they join the business. This means that they are aware of the consequences before they make the decision to get involved. In one case, two days before Valentine’s Day, a company president sent an employee a series of emails asking her to meet with him. The employee replied and told him she wouldn’t meet. A few days later, the president wrote an email telling the employee he had bought her two dozen roses but: “I threw them away and my personal feelings towards you got thrown away along with them. From now on, I’m nothing more than your employer as you’re nothing more than an employee … I guess that’s what it should have been always.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, a claim for sexual harassment was raised.

Training Day. One of the key safeguards for an employer is to have a suitable policy in place. However, a piece of paper is not enough – there must be effective training as well. So if you do hand out a policy (you should!) then make sure that there is a briefing about the policy and have all employees attend as well as sign off a training checklist confirming that they attended.

Six top tips for employees

Is it lust or love? Familiarity breeds positive feelings. We are spend much of our lives at work so it’s unsurprising that more people are having romantic relationships within the workplace. However, ask yourself – are you finding this person attractive because you spend so much time together or could they be “the one”? Don’t let a little late-night working closeness cloud your judgement – think about what happens once the lust dust wears off. If it’s the real thing, keep it discreet whilst you work out your feelings for each other.

Know the rules. Think before you jump in. Does your organisation have policies in place about workplace romances? Most will have something to say on the subject – even if it is as simple as we expect you to behave like adults and continue to undertake your work without disturbing your colleagues. Claiming that you didn’t know it wasn’t allowed will be no defence when one of you is moved or asked to leave.

Don’t let it affect your work. You may well want to shout your love from the roof tops, but keeping it under wraps and continuing to deliver your work in the usual professional manner will be appreciated. If you decide to go public later, demonstrate to your peers that you are a consummate professional and give your boss no reason to worry about your inter-office romance.

You’re not Leonardo DiCaprio. Titanic-esque public displays of affection might be very good for reminding your lover of your feelings for them; however, no work colleague wants to see this. It isn’t cute and it isn’t professional. Remember where you are and work hard to keep your private and work lives separate.

You’re the boss. Dating a subordinate can be very tricky. Some might see it as you taking advantage, whilst others perceive the subordinate as using cheap tricks to work up the ladder. If you are still convinced that they are the one for you, consider any decision you make about that person and be as transparent as possible in order to knock those rumours on the head.

It’s all gone wrong. We have to kiss a lot of frogs to find our prince – or so the story goes; the chances that a workplace romance can go off the boil or even turn sour are very real. Set out the ground rules in advance about what happens should you break up and then try to behave like adults and stick to the rules.

• Donald MacKinnon is director of legal services at Law At Work