How HR can manage office romances

The workplace can be a great place to meet like-minded people, but how can line managers ensure personal relationships don’t affect the business? Yvonne Wilcock helps HR find the balance

Love is in the air this Valentine’s Day and, with colleagues spending hours together each day, there’s every chance it might make its way into the office vents. In fact, research has shown that more than six out of 10 office staff have been involved in at least one office romance.

However, while having happy and fulfilled employees increases productivity, office relationships are not always plain sailing, and line managers often end up caught in the crossfire. Relationships are complex at the best of times, let alone in a workplace, so it can be difficult for line managers to help their employees balance these relationships with the standards of behaviour required at work. 

Common problems include:

Power dynamics: if one person in the relationship is more senior in the company than the other, the relationship usually needs to be declared. It is important for all parties to retain their professionalism and avoid favouritism. Line managers may have to move people off project teams, or into different departments, to ensure the integrity of the workplace, which can have an impact on productivity as well as team morale. 

Clashes: colleagues who are in a relationship are likely to want to take time off together, which can cause significant pressures on the rest of their teams. It’s important to avoid any instances of special treatment, while still supporting the individuals involved to have the best work-life balance possible.

Break-ups: despite the best of intentions, relationships can come to an end. The breakdown of a relationship may play out over an extended period of time, which can cause both emotional and professional distress to the individuals involved, but also to colleagues who know them. This can prevent people from achieving their full potential in the workplace, and in the worst-case scenario may lead to mental health issues for the parties involved. 

Harassment: while relationships are mutual, advances can sometimes be one-sided. Unwanted attention in the workplace is a complex challenge for line managers to handle. Words and deeds are not always interpreted in the same way, and so what could be seen as an innocent comment or action by one person could be interpreted as harassment by another. 

So how can line managers deal with relationship issues that might compromise the culture and integrity of the workplace?  

The first step is for businesses to provide first-class coaching and training for managers. They need to be fully up to speed on the company rules around relationships and equipped to handle sensitive situations both reactively and proactively. Line managers can often be fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing, and therefore end up doing nothing. This can be hugely damaging if employees feel they are being subjected to harassment, or that colleagues are getting special treatment because of a relationship.

Having informal conversations with employees is also crucial for line managers. Even if the relationship is going well and there don’t appear to be any negative effects, it’s important for managers to prevent issues from arising or, if they do arise, to handle them while they are still in the early stages. Creating an open dialogue from the start will ensure any issues can be dealt with swiftly by the manager and that the people involved are aware of the impact of their relationship on their colleagues. 

Finally, creating an open and engaging culture in which employees feel comfortable and safe is vital. Romance and relationships in the workplace is a hugely sensitive issue, so managers need to be fully equipped and confident in handling the wide range of personal and professional issues involved. 

This Valentine’s Day, perhaps the best gift is a well-trained, confident line manager. 

Yvonne Wilcock is client relationship director at AdviserPlus