This article originally appeared in People Management
Businesses have stopped trying to control workplace romance – and for good reason, as our survey shows
Two months after her partner of five years went away on an extended business trip, Anna found herself becoming more and more attracted to one of her colleagues. At first she tried to fight it but they worked closely together and regularly went for drinks after work.
“I didn’t want to be unfaithful but Sam made it clear how much he liked me and, even though I think I knew even then that it would end badly, I started an affair with him,” she says. “I really tried not to, but I was so drawn to him, I couldn’t help myself.”
Several months after the affair started, guilt drove Anna to break up with her original partner and she started to openly date Sam, but the cracks soon started to show. “If I’m honest, it was the thrill of the affair that had really drawn me to him and he knew it. We’d have massive fights and it started to affect my job,” she says. “Normally you can forget about your relationship difficulties at work but that’s hard when you work together in an open plan office. When I dumped him it became even harder to work together, so eventually I found a new job.”
It’s a story that is likely to resonate with many. In People Management’s survey of 553 readers, half of HR professionals admitted they’d had a relationship with a colleague and, in one-fifth of cases, one or both of them was already in a relationship. Which is unsurprising when you consider that a recent survey by Business Insider revealed 90 per cent of us have been sexually attracted to a colleague. And of the 54 per cent who said they’d had sex with a colleague, 49 per cent had done so at the office.
“People find prohibition exciting. The formality of the office context gets people thinking: they start wondering what the person three desks down might be like in bed,” says psychologist Oliver James. “Then you get the contrast that happens when everybody goes from that formal setting to the much more informal setting of the pub. Out of that can come either ordinary or illicit relationships. Part of the spice lies in keeping it a secret from your colleagues.”
But it’s not all about covert glances across a crowded office or shenanigans in the stationery cupboard. Our survey shows the majority of relationships (65 per cent) are with peers, and James points out that around 40 per cent of people meet the person they are going to have children with through the workplace.
Given the increasing permissiveness of wider society, it’s inevitable there will be more chemistry in the workplace. But while a few years ago a wave of British companies were drawing up “love contracts” to try and control budding romances, there now seems to be a growing acceptance that you can’t legislate for affairs of the heart – and that in some cases they may even be good for business (though many leaders would make a distinction between illicit trysts and true love).
Your attitude to the moral dimensions of romance at work is likely to depend on your age. According to a US study, millennials are the most likely to have had an office romance (84 per cent), compared with 36 per cent of those aged 30-45 and 29 per cent of those over 46. They are also more likely to see workplace romance as having positive effects, such as improved performance and morale.
Richard Crouch, president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) and director of HR at Somerset County Council, can see the potential benefits of finding love with a work colleague, even for professions like HR, provided it’s conducted appropriately.
“HR is sometimes quite a lonely job,” he says. “How many of us go back to our partners at home and try to explain what’s happening in the office and they just don’t comprehend what you are going through? Having that conversation with someone you love in the same organisation can be a real advantage, as long as you don’t breach confidentiality.”
William Rogers, chief executive of radio group UKRD, agrees that, while some office relationships can be a “complete nightmare”, it can sometimes be “just a delight that the business has brought two people together.
“We have interdepartmental relationships and it’s had little impact: if anything it can cement the engagement and relationship between the individuals concerned and the business,” he says. “Generally speaking, life is made much more difficult if it is a manager and a member of their team who have the relationship. Irrespective of how careful they are, human nature is such that it can create real problems. If there is the slightest sense of any favouritism, you are in big trouble.”
The repercussions when it does go wrong can land organisations in legal hot water. Paula Volkmer, an associate at Fox Williams, points out that there are several pitfalls, including sex discrimination, for instance where a more junior female employee is asked to move teams following a failed romance, as well as sexual harassment or victimisation claims.
Fiona Wilson, professor of organisational behaviour at Glasgow University, adds that literature on the topic clearly shows that because women are often lower in the hierarchy, they are more likely to lose their jobs or get transferred. And that can prove costly. Last year, one such case hit the headlines when a tribunal ruled that the chief executive of a £2 billion property firm had unfairly dismissed his PA after his wife found out about their affair. The PA, who was set to receive a large pay-out, failed in her claim for sex discrimination but the tribunal agreed she had been subject to harassment.
“Media coverage is often about high-profile male individuals,” says Wilson. “Women are consistently relegated to being the losers.”
Companies also need to be aware of the potential for confidential information to be shared, says Volkmer, or where checks and balances could be compromised – for instance in financial institutions, most of which require employees to disclose relationships.
“As an employer, the main risk of office relationships is if there’s a conflict of interest as a result of the relationship or if one person has the power to make decisions over another’s role,” she says.
There will always be the need to ensure confidential information remains just that – but that’s not the only risk for HR, particularly if the liaison is of the steamy, secret variety.
Mike Williams, director of people development at De Vere Hotels and Village Urban Resorts, believes that when HR has affairs it is “a pretty poor show” and that the profession needs to act as a role model. “If you are having an extramarital affair, your professional credibility has to be undermined,” he says. “These things can happen but I do think, as a department, you have to ensure that you maintain credibility.”
Williams adds that if you deal with employee relations, there is the additional risk of relationships – including friendships – straying into territory where you might be advising on a case. But although HR may be in a unique position, special rules for the function are unnecessary.
“People have a right to a life outside of work and if they meet someone at work they have a right to privacy, so you can’t be draconian in any of this. You have put people you trust in positions of responsibility and that they will make the right decisions,” he says.
That’s a markedly different view to the US, where employees are routinely asked to disclose or agree to parameters for office relationships. Apart from where there’s a clear legal or organisational issue, it would seem most Brits don’t believe businesses have the right to meddle in personal lives – and that when they do lay down the law, it doesn’t make any difference anyway.
Business Insider’s survey found 92 per cent of people think HR has no right to know if we’re sleeping with someone from the office – something the HR department at Fenland District Council discovered to its cost when its proposed policy for office romances hit the headlines a few years ago.
Dubbed the “bonk and get the boot” policy by one councillor, the proposal – which was never enacted – would have required staff working in the same team to declare close personal relationships in writing, and deemed that intimate behaviour during work time could be regarded as a disciplinary offence.
Such proscription, however, is the exception, with our survey revealing that only one in five HR professionals says their organisation has a policy on the topic, a number that falls to 1 per cent for outright bans. That’s probably wise, given Wilson’s research, which looked at romances taking place in a chain of bars.
“Both employees and managers generally agreed with each other that romance is something very natural to be found in the workforce and would often argue that you can’t really legislate for it,” says Wilson. “There were some unwritten rules – for example there shouldn’t be relationships between managers and team members – but they were being generally ignored.”
Crouch agrees that, on the whole, relationships can’t be legislated against. “So long as it doesn’t interfere with their public life, it is up to them,” he says. The most common approach in the public sector is to cover it in a code of conduct, either explicitly or implicitly. “We don’t have a policy and from a PPMA perspective I wouldn’t recommend it, unless there is a specific issue where maybe the culture needs to be changed.”
When relationships have occasionally been problematic, usually because they are between a manager and an employee, Somerset’s approach is to have a discussion with both members of staff with a view to one moving to another part of the council – a decision they agree themselves.
A similar approach is taken when relationships cause problems at UKRD but, says Rogers, the discussion is widened out to include other members of the team. “We will get all the team together in the presence of the people concerned and everyone in an open and honest but fair and professional way is encouraged to talk about the concerns they have. If everyone makes a measured, constructive contribution, you can generally solve most problems,” he says.
“It is only if you allow these things to fester that you get all the politics and rumour and innuendo.” And, given there’s already plenty of that in the average office, that’s probably something you’d rather avoid.