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Workplace relationships – should you or shouldn’t you?

Most people spend a third or more of their adult lives at work. All that time spent in close proximity to others can be a rich source of friendships, rivalries, and sometimes, romantic relationships. And that’s when most employers get twitchy. They worry about the blurring of professional/personal boundaries – and yes, there are potential risks – but often don’t know what to do about it. After all, you don’t want to be a spoilsport (or worse, stand in the way of true love!) but equally, for those working hours, you want people to concentrate on their jobs, right?

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a start, your lovebirds could be manager and ‘managee’ which pretty much throws any appearance of performance management objectivity out the window. And other people’s perception is the bulk of the problem.

Colleagues may interpret workplace decisions in light of the relationship (e.g. “X would never have got that promotion/project if they hadn’t been with Y”). Then there’s the possible arguments (almost 1 in 5 UK couples argue regularly) and even the breakup. If the golden couple are no longer speaking, that’s likely to have an impact.

What can an employer do?

Consider the following:

  • You can’t ban relationships – well, yes, you can have a written office policy that prohibits romance but it won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. As the old saying goes, love will find a way, and the response to your blanket ban will likely be secret WhatsApp messages and the stationery cupboard.
  • You can require that the business (your HR person, for example) is notified of any relationships so that you can consider any implications. For example, if one partner handles money, and the other is responsible for checking transactions, you may need some protection in place -not necessarily to protect against their light fingers but rather to protect them from unfounded allegations should the finances not balance one day.
  • Once a relationship is out in the open, an adult conversation between a manager (or other representative of the business) and the couple in question can go a long way to establishing some ground rules that everyone is comfortable with.
  • And if there is an argument or break up, resulting in the two people not speaking or otherwise finding it difficult to work together, consider mediation as a way of finding a way they can continue to collaborate (or understand why they cannot).
  • Also, rather than focus on preventing or managing workplace relationships, ensure that you have a viable talent management strategy or succession plan – then, should anyone want to, “not work with so-and-so” you’ll have already considered where your workforce can be flexible, who your natural successors are, and how you can fill any resulting skills gaps.

Ultimately, people are not machines and if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Far better to accept that simple fact and work with it, rather than try to be some kind of anti-romance King Canute and attempt to halt the tide.

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