In the digital age, online dating and swiping right are the status quo for romance. Practically gone are the days of meeting “the one” in a pub. But what about flirting by the water cooler or over Zoom? The consensual office relationship has been both a romance trope and a taboo for decades.
There are many reasons someone might enter a workplace relationship. Research shows that people gravitate towards like-minded people with common personality traits, backgrounds, belief systems and ideas. Proximity and familiarity also influence attraction, something psychologists call the mere exposure effect.
For better or for worse, offices are a place where like-minded people are in close proximity to each other for many hours, so it’s no surprise that many people are open to love at work. A 2020 YouGov poll found that 18% of Brits met their current or most recent partner through work.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.
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If you’re thinking about entering a relationship with your desk neighbour, or even your boss, here are some things to consider.
1. Is it a hierarchical relationship?
Despite their prevalence, office romances are still frowned upon, and more so after the #MeToo movement. Deciding to enter a hierarchical workplace relationship (when one partner is in a higher position at work than the other) is not something to be taken lightly.
Lower-status participants who have coupled up with their boss or senior staff member are sometimes confronted with gossip and career roadblocks because of their relationship. While some may think entering such a relationship could help them get ahead in their career, in reality their relationship status could hinder their progress. Research has found that the lower-status person in a hierarchical workplace relationship is less likely to be promoted or recommended for training opportunities than their colleagues who are not in such a relationship.
2. How might it affect your work performance?
With love and sex on the brain, is anyone getting any work done? The general stance is that canoodling is bad for business and affects productivity. Studies have found that feelings of passion and love, especially in the early stages of a relationship, can negatively impact productivity because our minds are elsewhere than the task at hand.
This is particularly challenging in a professional environment, and when you may have to work alongside your lover. However, there are measures you can take to curb distractions. Minimise communications that are not of a work-related nature, except when essential, and avoid physical touch like kissing or holding hands in the workplace.
3. Does your organisation allow it?
Courtship and dating are natural phenomena, whether organisations like it or not. Prohibiting relationships is not the solution, and if anything will only lead relationships underground.
Despite this, many employers (mainly in the US) manage relationships by deploying “love contracts” – written rules and policies which the couple agrees to, confirming that the relationship is consensual and voluntary. This not only designed to protect the couple, but to protect the employer from being sued for harassment if the relationship breaks down.
Employees aren’t likely to want to disclose to their direct line of report, HR person or relevant peers, who they are having sexual relations with. Article 8 of the Human Rights Act protects individuals of their right to private and family life, which might explain why love contracts are not used in the UK.
Employers have to balance their own business interests with their employee’s privacy rights. However, just as there are policies and training for tackling sexual harassment, discrimination and mental health, there is also a need to address workplace romances. Your employer should have accessible (and reasonable) policies and guidelines about disclosing relationships, particularly when they are hierarchical.
4. What happens if you split up?
While no one plans for their relationship to end, things do happen and it’s best to be prepared. In a non-workplace relationship, a break-up might mean your productivity declines or you need to take a mental health day. But if you work with your now-ex partner, there are other things to consider, like if you have to interact or collaborate on a project.
Where relevant, it may be possible to request a transfer to a different team or to work remotely until the dust settles. Your company may also offer workplace counselling or programmes designed to support employees going through tough times, including depression, grief or the aftermath of a relationship.
Ultimately, how employers choose to manage romance at work depends on acknowledging that workplace relationships do happen, and understanding that happier and more satisfied employees tend to be more productive and collaborate better in teams. It is in employers’ best interests to support their employees’ wellbeing, even (and especially) when those employees fall in love.
Chantal Gautier does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.