Nearly half of working Australians will have had at least one office fling during their working life. It is undeniable both, that: office romances happen and that they happen often. After all, we spend a lot of time at work and in close proximity with colleagues.

We engage in informal banter, share coffees and bond over workplace difficulties. On a typical working day we spend many more waking hours at work than at home.

Moreover, the workplace landscape continues to change and there are an increasing number of social events, late night meetings and outstation events hosted by companies. As times and work cultures change there are more varied opportunities to mingle with your colleagues informally, even if they are working remotely.

As a manager or leader, it is important to consider the potential negative effects of such a romance. How do you deal with employees who are dating at work? Do you take a tough stand, acknowledge the situation only casually or use a different approach somewhere between the two extremes?

Adverse Effects of Office Relationships

While many workplace romances do develop into serious relationships or marriages, a lot also end in frustration, tears and heartbreak. A romantic relationship between colleagues may lead to several potential areas of conflict. Other teammates may resent the special attention the couple give each other. The pair involved may also avoid overtime or extra work to be with each other after hours. While this may be true of any new relationship, it will be far more heavily scrutinised and noticed when both people are working in the same team.

Trust issues could also develop as the pair in question could be discussing confidential matters. Office romances often take up time, energy and concentration and involvement in teamwork may be seen to subside. If an employee has a relationship with a superior, his or her success may be viewed as preferential treatment, and other employees are almost certain to suspect favouritism.

Other workers may feel uncomfortable around them resulting in a drop in morale. Inappropriate displays of affectionate behaviour can lead to general embarrassment and discomfort. They might quarrel causing a rift in project completion. If a senior executive is involved, the negative impact on the team has the potential to be even greater. Overall, office relationships, if not handled in a mature and low-key manner, impact productivity in a surprising number of ways. In small businesses with fewer employees, the effects can be concentrated and so even worse.

Handling Relationships at Work Can Be Tricky

Kate Jenkins, a prominent Australian lawyer, says that office relationships can have legal fallouts and are a tricky business to handle. Most bosses in Australia still adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach and stay out of this rather delicate area. But this may not be the best strategy in certain situations.

While the smitten co-workers may feel happy, approaching an office romance can prove to be an HR nightmare. An increasing number of employers are now resorting to having firm, no-office relationships’ policies in place. These policies usually stipulate that employees should refrain from romantic engagement in the workplace and keep their personal lives after-hours.

Australian Bosses Are Often Reluctant to Intervene

Despite feeling discomfort, managers are forced through circumstance to navigate employee relationships at work. Company policies can contain lawful and reasonable directions but cannot authorise incursions into an employees’ private space.

In general, Australian bosses report experiencing extreme embarrassment when forced to discuss such subjects with their employees. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, business leaders are re-evaluating their approach to in-house fraternizing and dating policies.

In many situations, to an observer, there can be a confusing line between an office romance and the forcing of unwanted attention on a colleague. For reasons of shame or intimidation on the victim’s part it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between the two. Although it is crucial to protect an employee from being sexually harassed, many managers do not want to get involved at all despite there being potentially huge legal repercussions to deal with.

How to Handle Dating and Relationships in the Workplace

The most effective strategy to avoid problems is to have clear clauses in company policy and ensure that every employee is familiar with them. HR experts do not advocate a ‘no dating’ clause as it may force employees to leave. But it goes a long way to have consistent guidelines and procedures in place.

Open and honest communication encourages transparency and adherence to rules. You can also consider having regular training programs to help staff in handling the strain of any relationships at work. Corporate coaching programs can also help them keep their personal and professional lives apart.

At ESN, we are happy to leverage our extensive experience in the field of human resource and psychology to benefit your organisation. Our staff will help managers and teams create positive work practices aimed at improving teamwork and overall workplace harmony. We provide proven strategies that help reinforce appropriate relationships in the workplace.

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