How to Handle a Personal Relationship at Work
Navigating the Highs and Lows of an Office Romance
Do you work with the man or woman of your dreams? Or have the same employer as your spouse?
If you do – great! It can be comforting to have a loved one around for moral support when you're feeling stressed, or to help you to celebrate when you're on top of the world.
But how do you avoid colleagues gossiping about your relationship, or accusing you of favoritism? Or, if you are interested in someone, should you make your feelings known?
The workplace is a professional environment so, no matter who you work with, you'll want to maintain that professionalism during working hours. In this article, we look at how you can preserve both your business reputation and your relationship.
How Common Are Workplace Relationships?
A 2012 study found that the workplace was one of the most common places for people in the U.S. to meet their partners. But the proportion of relationships that begin at work has fallen sharply since 1990, as a result of the explosion of internet use.
However, we still spend a great deal of time in the company of our co-workers, and the pressure of working life means that we often form strong bonds with them. So, relationships are bound to develop, be they fleeting fancies, long-term dating, illicit affairs, or something that leads to wedding bells.
What Are the Common Pitfalls of Workplace Relationships?
Sadly, for every successful working partnership, such as Barack and Michelle Obama or Bill and Melinda Gates, there are the bitter recriminations of a Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski.
And millions of women worldwide, and some men, suffer encounters every day that amount to sexual harassment rather than mutual romance. For example, in a 2017 poll for ABC News and the Washington Post, 30 percent of women said they had experienced unwanted advances from male co-workers, and 23 percent from men who had influence over their work situation.
The global #metoo campaign, and spin-offs such as #timesup, have encouraged the empowerment of both victims and witnesses of sexual harassment to challenge and improve workplace cultures, in particular by raising awareness of the concept of consent.
Be sure to read our articles When to Speak Up, Dealing With Bullying, and How to Manage Defensive People, and to get advice from your HR department, ERG or employee assistance program, before doing so yourself.
The issues don't end when a relationship between a manager and one of his or her team members is consensual.
A 2016 survey found that almost a quarter of people who had an office romance dated someone senior to them. Yet gossip and envy can lead co-workers to believe that such connections may influence promotions and pay raises unfairly.
They might also doubt that the parties will maintain confidentiality. For example, one partner may alert the other to a department reshuffle, or the couple might discuss other team members' problems when they're at home.
There is also a risk of collusion in roles that follow the "four eyes principle." This is where two people are required to sign off or approve an action, and it is common in some legal or financial roles, for instance. If those two people are in a relationship, it might impact their independence and integrity.
More issues arise when a workplace relationship comes to an end. The fallout could affect the mood and productivity of a whole team. Things can get ugly, with accusations of harassment or bullying.
Avoiding Workplace Problems Caused by Relationships
If you are in a relationship with a co-worker, or thinking about starting one, there's plenty that you can do to avoid unnecessary stress or disruption for yourself and your colleagues. Here are six things to consider. (To keep things simple, we refer to your "significant other" as your "partner.")
1. Be Aware of Legal Penalties
Workplace relationships can be subject to some draconian regulations, despite being "personal." These can be national or state laws, or religious rules. Make sure that you research how these apply to your situation.
For example, the state of Utah in the U.S. has a Nepotism Act that makes it unlawful to "appoint, supervise or make salary or performance recommendations" for anyone with whom you have a "close, personal relationship."
In some parts of the world, breaking laws regarding relationships can have serious consequences for citizens and visitors alike, from fines and imprisonment through execution.
For example, in the United Arab Emirates, all sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage are a crime, including living with someone of the opposite sex. And in several countries, including Nigeria and Russia, any suspected lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) activity is violently punished.
2. Check Your Organization's HR Policy
Even if the law doesn't forbid your relationship, or dictate how you conduct it, some organizations have their own strict policies on workplace relationships. For example, some companies frown upon one partner managing the other.
As we mentioned above, legal and financial institutions and other highly regulated environments may have rules about workplace relationships, to ensure that they don't expose the organization to breaches of compliance, conflicts of interest, or inappropriate collusion.
The safest option is to ask your HR department if it has a policy in place, and to let your HR advisor know if you are in a workplace relationship.
If you're a manager or senior employee, think carefully before dating a more junior person, or before putting yourself in any situation where there may be a real or perceived power imbalance. This could lead to accusations of harassment.
3. Consider Your Company's Culture
Even if it's not written into HR policy, you need to get a feel for your organization's cultural view on workplace relationships. You can do this by developing Cultural Intelligence, and by making an effort to understand the backgrounds, beliefs and attitudes of the people around you.
This is especially important if you are working abroad, or in an organization with a different culture from your own.
Whatever the legal or cultural context, be aware that "getting involved" with a co-worker while either one of you is in another, committed relationship will likely call your integrity into question, even in liberal workplaces.
4. Talk to Your Partner
Chances are, your colleagues and co-workers already know that you "have a crush" on the redhead in the sales team or the hunk in communications, and they may already suspect that it has blossomed into a relationship!
So, you have to decide with your partner how you'll behave at work. Do you "come clean" and let your colleagues know what's going on? Or, as the CareerBuilder survey mentioned above reveals, do you join the third of workplace couples who decide to keep their relationship a secret?
Discuss whether to set some boundaries at work, such as not spending too much time alone together, or agreeing not to use your "pet names" for one another. (You can find other useful tips on setting personal boundaries in our article, Managing Friends and Family Members.)
Of course, you need to agree on what approach you will take. It's no good one partner making no secret of a relationship if the other is trying to "keep it under wraps"!
5. Stay Professional at Work
Your colleagues might have given the "thumbs up" to your office romance, and think you're the best-matched couple since Romeo and Juliet, but you still need to tread carefully.
Indulging in in-jokes, private conversations, and public displays of affection can make your co-workers feel awkward. And if you and your partner are eating lunch together in the staff restaurant, other colleagues may not know whether you want privacy or would welcome the extra company. Why not invite a few more people along? Even if they decline your invitation, you have made the offer.
If you discuss business matters together – or, worse still, make business decisions – while your co-workers are absent, it will likely cause resentment. If you're managing your partner, you need to be especially mindful of your professional interactions, and be seen to be extra careful to treat your other team members equally and fairly.
Having some sensitivity and empathy about how other people perceive your relationship can go a long way toward keeping everyone onside. For example, be sure to avoid inadvertently excluding people by creating an in-group of two.
6. Be Prepared for Gossip!
Behaviorist and anthropologist Helen Fisher said, "As social animals, we need to exchange juicy tales about someone – to connect with one another. For millions of years our forebears must have sat around the campfire, whispering about everyone they knew."
So, even if you rigorously follow the suggestions above, some people may be quick to make assumptions and to see favoritism or nepotism that's just not there.
Be prepared! Keep careful notes on any potentially sensitive actions or decisions that you take, such as any pay raises or promotions that you approve or recommend, and be scrupulous in mentioning any potential conflicts of interest. This will provide evidence should you ever need to counter any claims of unfair treatment.
If you remain professional and fair in your workplace interactions and behavior, people will less likely concern themselves with your relationship.
What If the Relationship Ends?
You have to remain professional if your workplace relationship comes to an end, no matter what the reason.
This can be a difficult time for you, your ex-partner, and your colleagues, especially if you still have to work closely together. An acrimonious split can poison the atmosphere in the workplace, and impact productivity and morale.
If you manage your ex-partner, make sure that you don't discriminate against her, or you and your organization risk being the subject of a grievance procedure. Don't get involved in "muck-raking" or "washing your dirty linen in public," even if your former partner does.
Remember that you have a long-term reputation to maintain, or perhaps to rebuild. No matter how polished your business patter, a messy feud in the workplace will almost certainly affect the way that your colleagues perceive you.
Before you worry about the social implications of dating a co-worker, check your legal and contractual situation. If the law and your employer's corporate policy allow it, and as long as you and your partner act consensually, ethically and professionally, you can minimize any resentment or unfair accusations of harrassment, bias or preferential treatment.
Agree with your partner how to handle your relationship in the workplace, and make sure that you're aware of any business-specific issues that arise from it.
Use sensible measures to avoid any workplace friction that could be caused by the way that you behave with your partner. It's vital that you both act with the utmost integrity and speak up about any possible conflicts of interest, particularly if your work could expose you to any risk of inappropriate collusion.
So long as you work at balancing the legal, professional and personal, having a trusted partner close at hand can make your day at work a whole lot more pleasant.
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