10 tips for handling an office romance

You may remember a particular story that broke late last year about a high-profile office romance. Fast-food giant McDonald’s had fired their CEO for engaging in a consensual relationship with a colleague. This, McDonald’s said, “demonstrated poor judgement” on his part.

While it’s not surprising that many relationships begin in the office, workplace romance can create headaches for employers. There are risks of favouritism, the possibility of abuse of power, and conflicts of interest.

So where do employers stand? There’s little chance of prohibiting workplace relationships after all. That said, there are certain steps you can take to reduce the risk of an office romance fallout.

1. Policies and procedures

It’s important that your existing policies can deal with office romances. Having policies in place that require workers to notify you of a relationship that might give rise to a conflict of interest can save you a whole host of HR headaches.

2. Encourage staff to notify management

While this one may seem farfetched, it’s important that management is made aware of any workplace romance. Knowing that two employees are seeing each other will enable you to take action if needed.

3. Don’t ignore the issue

Understandably, not all employees will want to disclose their new relationship to their employer. However, if it becomes known to management that a personal relationship between staff has developed, it might be time to act.

4. Do you need to change your work environment

A new workplace relationship can highlight faults in your relationship reporting or management structures. If you decide to revise your systems, discuss the best approach with the people affected. This will help quash any suspicion of favouritism that may arise down the line.

5. Watch out for favouritism

Office romances can raise a few eyebrows. That’s because colleagues might begin to think that those in the relationship are doing each other favours. For complete clarity, ensure that members of staff who are engaged in relationships with colleagues are not involved in any management decisions involving partners.

6. If needed, take action

Complaints of favouritism can arise when an office romance is known among employees. If these land on your desk, investigate each complaint and take action if needed. This is especially important if they relate to bullying or harassment.

7. Train your managers

Unfortunately, most managers are unsure how to tackle workplace romances. To counter the issue, provide regular training on how to respond to harassment complaints that arise from a previous romance.

8. Keep your eyes peeled during work social events

Work-related social events are often the source of office romances. Because of that, it’s wise to remind staff that they’re still expected to adhere to company policies, even if the event is outside of the office.

9. What happens if the romance ends?

It’s a fact of life: not all romances blossom. If it’s an office relationship that’s ended, it could impact anything from an employee’s performance to the general office mood. The employees involved in the relationship may even need to be moved between departments.

10. Be mindful of your obligations

Sexual harassment and bullying can often arise in the context of workplace romances. That’s why you need to have policies and procedures in place to deal with any complaints. Be proactive and set expectations around workplace conduct and enforce your policies if needed.

Taking action now will help to maintain a professional environment for all your staff.

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Nora Cashe

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Nóra studied Law in Griffith College Dublin and qualified as a Barrister in 2008, practising in the area of Criminal law. She is also member of the Irish Employment Law Association.

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Nóra is a member of the Irish Employment Law Association and engages with the WRC Adjudication Service as part of their stakeholder engagement forum.

Deiric McCann

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David Begg

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