An HR guide to handling office romances

With the recent news that McDonald's has fired its CEO for dating an employee, Karen Barker provides tips for people professionals on managing workplace relationships

We spend most of our week with colleagues, so it’s unsurprising that many romantic relationships blossom in the office. But not all love stories have a happy ending, and workplace relationships can sometimes cause major problems and conflicts in the office. 

Banning them altogether is unrealistic and hard to enforce, so it is crucial for employers and HR teams to properly manage and monitor office relationships.

There are some key pieces of advice that business leaders and HR practitioners can follow to help handle in-office romances correctly:

Create a company dating policy 

Businesses can protect both themselves and employees by having a dating policy that clearly sets out expectations around disclosure and states what conduct the organisation considers to be harassment.

This can help to establish an employer's defence if a claim is ever raised. Relationships are mutual, but advances can sometimes be unwanted and one-sided, leading to claims of harassment. 

Train management correctly

Businesses should provide the right training to managers so that they know how to handle potentially sensitive situations. Managers need to be fully aware and understand the company’s stance on office romances. 

It is also important for line managers to have more informal conversations with their teams. Encourage staff to notify management of an office romance. Promoting open conversations from the beginning will help to make sure that any issues are dealt with swiftly and efficiently. 

Ban public displays of affection 

Public displays of affection are not appropriate at work and can make colleagues feel awkward and uncomfortable.  Policies for prohibiting public displays of affection are not uncommon and HR can intervene if they are made aware of these behaviours at work. 

Be alert on work social events 

Christmas parties and boozy work nights out are often where romantic relationships start. It’s a good idea to remind staff that they are still expected to adhere to company policies when out on work social events. 

Damage control 

Office romances that turn sour can have a huge impact on the business and its employees. 

Messy break-ups can lead to people refusing to talk to each other, taking sides and even handing in their notice. 

Conflicts between former lovers in the workplace should be handled in the same way as any other workplace dispute. 

Whatever the issue or reason for separating, organisations expect their staff to cooperate and be civil while at work.  

If issues arise and don’t improve, managers should consider separating or relocating one of the employees concerned to defuse the situation. 

Keep listening  

Make it easy for employees to report anything that concerns them or that they consider inappropriate. Make sure they know exactly who to contact in confidence, so that employees always have a confidential way of flagging anything that could potentially be detrimental to the business. 

Lastly, it’s important to say that not all office romances end in disaster. There’s nothing employers can do when it comes to attraction but preparing for the worst scenarios is always wise. 

Karen Barker is partner and head of the employment and HR group at SAS Daniels Solicitors