Relationships in the workplace

Are they ever a good idea?

Laura Rennie

The statistics speak for themselves. 58% of employees have engaged in an office romance according to job site, Vault.com. More than half of the workplace find love or at least romance at work. Interestingly, Forces (2023) found that 43% of relationships at work have led to marriage, with another 40% having cheated on their current partner with a co-worker. I was surprised to learn these facts!

We are well aware, from a HR point of view, of the negative impact that romantic relationships can have on other people and the overall energy/culture in the workplace. Sometimes this includes work gossip and a perception of favouritism. When behaviours change to treat people better (or worse when it all goes wrong), then this is when it becomes a toxic situation.

One of the best job interview questions I was ever asked was: “Can you deal with a love triangle, I’ve lost five days over Christmas trying to unpick it?” I did get the job and it was a hard slog trying to ‘fix’ that situation involving three different employees from two different departments, secret liaisons in the staff room, various social media posts, and inappropriate graphical communications. So what can we do to minimise the risk to the business, to our colleagues and to those involved in the romance?

The HR governing body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), suggests a Relationship at Work Policy could be the answer. This will help provide guidance as to what may be appropriate and what is not. Would such a policy have helped my love triangle? I don’t think so. Assuming everyone involved is an adult, who are we to judge their relationship? This is where it gets really tricky. Naturally, humans do judge other humans, sometimes sub-consciously.

You may have been the victim of an affair and, therefore, feel very sensitive when you notice flirting or cheating partners. But, so long as it’s not directly impacting how they carry out their work, it’s completely up to the individuals how they wish to conduct themselves. However, if this impacts their job, then the employer can get more involved.

In the love triangle situation that I was hired to ‘fix’ it affected lots of different staff and involved two individuals having the same partner and all working together. They had to communicate with each other during their working hours, they had to trust each other whilst carrying out their roles, they had to sit beside each other in the working environment, and because of the high levels of trust within the organisation, everyone seemed to pick a ‘side’. It was horrible for everyone involved.

As employers, we must treat everyone fairly even if we don’t agree with the situation or with someone’s private relationship. The social media posts and graphical communications were more easily resolved – a work phone was used without authorisation – but the loss of trust was harder to mediate.

There is a reason for the phrase ‘Don’t mix business with pleasure’ and I agree, even if it goes against the aforementioned statistics. Cupid needs to work a bit harder to keep us HR practitioners happy – unless we have everyone working from home!

If you do find yourself in a situation where you think you would benefit from HR advice on romance in the workplace, please reach out to us. In the meantime, keep #doingHRright.