Love is in the air… but is it toxic?

by Nicola Middlemiss16 Feb 2015
Office romances are an inevitable part of working life and it’s not unlikely some of your employees will end up ‘involved’ – but is that so bad? Dianne Austin, workforce diversity program manager at Massachusetts General Hospital, certainly thinks so.

"All employers should be concerned about workplace romances," said Austin. “Minimally because of the effect on employee morale and ultimately because of the potential legal issues.”

"Office romances that end badly can spill over into the daily work environment," she warned. "Employers may find themselves dealing with issues of decreased productivity, or mediating between employees who are no longer working collaboratively with each other."

Wandering eyes – and employees 

Austin said employers should be particularly worried if their most valued employees embark on an office romance.

Regardless of whether the love affair lasts or is destined for failure, HR managers risk losing integral members of the team as a result.

When a relationship goes well, some couples are concerned that they spend too much time together and seek out other, independent, opportunities.

But when the partnership crashes and burns, Austin said employees may feel “they can no longer work at the company because of the breakup.”

It’s an epidemic 

It seems the issue is remarkably wide spread – a new survey by CareerBuilder reports that 34% of Canadian workers have dated a co-worker and research from the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that 43% of HR professionals have had to deal with office romances.

The CareerBuilder survey also found that 26% of those who engaged in an office romance ended up married to their suitor – but what about the other 74%?

"Invariably, most relationships will come to an end,” said employment lawyer Harley Storrings. “There could come a point where one person wants the relationship to continue and the other person doesn't – sooner or later, unwanted advances could create a hostile work environment claim, so you need to be very careful there," he warned.

Sweet nothings

While it would be difficult for any employer to enforce a strict no-romance policy in the workplace, Austin said HR managers should definitely have concrete restrictions in place.

Austin suggested employers enforce a strict ban on romantically involved employees participating in romantic or sexually explicit conversations, open displays of affection, such as hugging, kissing, touching, blowing kisses and winking, and “romantic rendezvous” on office property.

Love is a constant…

Regardless of how you choose to handle workplace romances, the most important thing is to make sure you’re consistent, said Storrings.

For example, Storrings suggested employers adopt a uniform policy on what to do when relationships aren't openly disclosed.

"If it is going to be termination, then every single time you need to be prepared to terminate the employee," he said. "If it is going to be a disciplinary process, then just be consistent."

If employers stray from this, they’re opening themselves up to potential lawsuit’s he warned.


  • by Catherine Cahill 16/02/2015 1:02:12 PM

    It is my understanding that in Australia it would be unlawful to terminate an employee because of an office romance. So the last piece of advice from our American colleague needs to be viewed in the context of our own legislation.

    Even if it was not unlawful to terminate employees for becoming romantically involved, in every organisation many employees form very strong social bonds with each other - romantic or not. This is simply part of the workplace environment.

    I worked in one particular organisation where workplace romances were rife, because the staff worked unsociable hours and ended up spending most of their down time with each other.

    I navigated a number of Harassment claims and Bullying claims when relationships turned sour. Although these matters were not simple, basic rules could be drawn up and agreed to for behaviour between the ex lovers.

    I also openly addressed staff during Bullying and Harassment training regarding what was, and what was not acceptable behaviour in the workplace.

    For the most part though - the very strong friendships bonds forged in this organisation enhanced the culture of the company. I would not trade that off, for an attempt to remove the potential downsides of the odd romance gone wrong.

    We had a number of marriages and quite a few babies - and this added to the culture of the organisation.

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