How to Handle a Personal Relationship at Work
Avoiding the Dangers 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 a source of comfort 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 can you avoid colleagues resenting or gossiping about your relationship? Or making accusations of bias or favoritism against you?
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?
We 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. As a result, relationships are bound to develop, be they fleeting office romances, illicit affairs, longer-term dating, or perhaps even ending in wedding bells!
But remember, for every ultimately successful office romance such as a Barack and Michelle Obama or a Bill and Melinda Gates, there's a Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski!
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.
The research shows that, in 2010, 10 percent of heterosexual relationships started at work, compared with 20 percent in 1990. Over the same period, the percentage of relationships that started online went from virtually zero to more than 20.
Identifying the Potential Pitfalls of Workplace Relationships
Personal relationships in a professional environment can, if you'll excuse the pun, be a "hotbed" of thorny issues, particularly if one partner is a manager and the other is a member of his or her team. A 2016 survey by U.S. recruitment specialist CareerBuilder™ found that almost a quarter of people who had an office romance dated someone senior to them.
If a relationship does straddle the office hierarchy, gossip and envy may lead some co-workers to believe that it may have influenced promotions and pay raises. There are also issues surrounding confidentiality. For example, one partner may alert the other to a department reshuffle that may impact jobs on his team.
And there is the risk of collusion in roles where the "four eyes principle" is followed. 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.
Also, more problems can arise if a workplace relationship comes to an end. If the split is acrimonious, the fallout could affect the mood and productivity of a whole team. And if things get really ugly, accusations of harassment could be made by one side or the other.
Even if it's not illegal where you live, or against your employer's policy, it should go without saying 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.
Avoiding Workplace Problems Caused by Relationships
In an ideal world, we'd like to give the advice, "Just don't do it." However, the reality is that this kind of thing happens and people need to know how to handle it.
If you are in a relationship with a co-worker, there's plenty that you can do to avoid unnecessary stress or disruption for yourself and your colleagues. To keep things simple, in this section we refer to your "significant other" as your "partner."
Here are six things to consider if you are in, or thinking about having, a workplace relationship.
1. Be Aware of Any Legal Obstacles
Workplace relationships can be subject to some draconian regulations. 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 local laws regarding relationships can have very serious consequences. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, it is illegal to live with a member of the opposite sex if you are not married, and expats need to be aware that this is punishable by imprisonment or deportation. And in some Muslim states, adultery can be regarded as a flogging or even a stoning offense.
2. Check Your Organization's HR Policy
Even if the law where you live doesn't forbid your relationship, or establish rules about it, some organizations have 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, you should think very carefully before dating a more junior person, or before putting yourself in any situation where there may be a real or perceived power imbalance. Whether your interest is welcome or not, you can end up being accused of harassment, and this can have a severe negative impact on your career.
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 to your own.
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 the communications team, 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 33 percent of workplace couples who decide to keep their relationship a secret?
You should discuss whether to have 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
Even if your colleagues have given the "thumbs up" to your office romance and think you're the best-matched couple since Romeo and Juliet, you still have to tread carefully.
Indulging in in-jokes, private conversations, and public displays of affection can make your co-workers feel awkward. For example, 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. If you're heading out for lunch with your partner, why not invite a few more people along? Even if they decline your invitation, you have made the offer, and that can go a long way to maintaining team harmony.
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 and avoiding inadvertently excluding anyone.
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.
The key thing here is "be prepared." Keep careful notes on any potentially sensitive actions or decisions that you have taken, such as any pay raises or promotions that you approve or recommend, and be scrupulous in speaking up about 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 grievance procedures or claims of harassment or bullying. Don't get involved in "muck-raking" or "washing your dirty linen in public," even if your former partner does.
If your workplace relationship has broken down acrimoniously, take some time to consider your reputation and, if necessary, how to rebuild it. No matter how polished your business patter, a messy feud in the workplace will almost certainly affect the way that you're perceived by colleagues.
Before worrying 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 ethically and professionally, you can minimize any resentment or unfair accusations of 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 arising from your relationship. 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 professional and the personal, having a trusted partner close at hand can make your day at work a whole lot more pleasant.
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