The office romance–true love or promotion killer?

It’s February, and Valentine’s day is right around the corner. As the season of love spreads through the air, cheesy “I love you” cards are stacking the shelves, social media is brimming with declarations of affection and singles everywhere, watching chick flicks, are being convinced a card will fall through their letter box any minute. However, what if that ‘secret Valentine’ were to land in your office locker? It’s true what they say, you cannot help who you fall in love with, but the question I have is: should you fall in love at work?

In a society that’s promoting diversity, inclusion and equality, as well as one that’s experiencing the rise of the #metoo movement, I find myself questioning whether the office should only be a place of work or if, in fact, it’s a place where relationships can thrive. With a study finding 65% of office workers had been involved in at least one workplace romance, it appears as if a lot of people are mixing business with pleasure, but what are the legalities of such relationships? Fudia Smartt, partner at Hine Legal, noted in an article for LexisNexis Office love stories—exploring the legality of the workplace romance that there are ‘no explicit laws governing workplace relationships in the UK’ but these relationships can ‘potentially give rise to a host of employment law issues including: sex discrimination, sexual harassment, harassment under the Protection of Harassment Act 1997, breach of contract, and unfair dismissal claims’, among others.

What are the issues with having an office romance?

When I think of office romances gone wrong, the most obvious example is Bridget Jones and Daniel Cleaver. After Daniel—Bridget’s boss—cheats on her, Bridget decides to leave the company. But not before Daniel tries to tell her that she would be breaching her contract as it says she must give ‘six week’s notice’, as well as telling her she has been ‘overlooked [in terms of work opportunities] for personal reasons’. This example alone raises a whole host of issues which you should be aware of, such as:

  • conflict of duties
  • a hostile work environment
  • risk of favouritism
  • conflicts of interest, and
  • abuse of position

Are there any positives to an office romance?

There is a heart shaped silver lining to workplace dating; according to a study in 2015, 30% of the reported office romances lead to a serious relationship or marriage. We’ve all heard about teachers dating teachers and lawyers marrying lawyers, due to the benefits of having shared values and understanding of the work environment, but why are these relationships beneficial to the workplace? Well, office romances are said to, among other things:

  • increase understanding within the relationship of the demands and pressures being put on both parties—which are often unique to their professions—allowing for both parties to have a valid support network during work
  • lead to a boost in productivity and morale, as those in the relationship are often happier which can translate into a better work ethic
  • create a less stressed workforce and increase greater sharing of ideas

However, the above isn’t always the case. Relationships aren’t always smooth sailing in or out of the workplace, so when asking yourself the question of passion or promotion, here are some things to consider:

  • always check your company policies—in the UK employers don’t often establish a policy in this regard as it may be imposing on the individual’s personal rights, although it’s always best to double check that you aren’t breaking any rules
  • be sure to always stay professional and do not prioritise your other half over colleagues when work is concerned—this could not only be seen as favouritism, but may lead to being in breach of contract
  • keep the romance out of the office—separating work and relationship can not only ensure that you always stay professional, but does not sacrifice your relationships to becoming fair game for other colleagues to discuss around the coffee machine
  • make a contingency plan—although we’d like to think that everyone starting a workplace relationship will be running off into the sunset, there is a chance that you both aren’t so compatible further down the line, and eventually decided to end it. It’s best to ensure you have the conversation early on about how you would handle this situation and put a plan in place, so as not to disrupt the workflow for you and those around you

From an employer’s perspective, to minimise risk, Fudia Smartt suggests:

  • request members of staff, particularly those with line management responsibilities, to notify them of any personal relationships at work
  • change reporting lines and management structures where it seems to make sense to do this
  • ensure that members of staff who are engaged in relationships with colleagues are not involved in any management decisions involving their partners (because of the importance of such decisions being seen to be impartial)
  • remind staff of their confidentiality obligations, and
  • take disciplinary action where necessary

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Filed Under: Practice of Law

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