Given the amount of time we spend at work, it’s little wonder that many people find themselves in relationships with colleagues. Indeed, it’s estimated that roughly a third of employees have had a ‘romantic liaison’ with a colleague, and, moreover, that somewhere between a fifth and a third of people meet their spouse through work. Hell, even Michelle and Barack Obama met at work. With statistics like this, amorous inter-colleague action is almost certain to be on the menu as a company grows and recruits more staff.
But it needn’t always be a bad thing. In fact, there are many positives associated with having co-workers hit by Cupid’s arrow. For one, having a spouse, partner or even a love interest at work can increase retention. Seeing the object of one’s affections at the watercooler each morning can be a great motivator for going to work, says John Readman, commercial director of Search Laboratory, a fast-growing search software firm. “I think it benefits the business because they’re more likely to enjoy their work – and stay for longer too. I think that’s a big plus,” says Readman.
Search Laboratory accepts the inevitability of office romances as it employs a high number of single, young people. “It isn’t proactively encouraged, but neither is it frowned upon to become involved with a co-worker,” explains Readman. “If you want to create a culture in a business, you have to do a lot of socialising with the people you work with. We even fund a lot of the socialising, because when you’ve got new people joining all the time, there’s always new staff and people who need to get to know each other.”
Of its 130-strong workforce, Search Laboratory already has three official couples – and potentially others under the radar. “If you get a load of smart, like-minded people in the same room and they all spend a lot of time together and get drunk together, it’s just going to happen.”
There may perhaps be another reason that Readman is so openminded about office romances: he met his wife at work when they were working for another entrepreneurial technology company, QAS, which was eventually sold to Experian. “She was a recent graduate and I was a top salesman,” says Readman. “I actually spotted my wife the day she came for interview and I went to the hiring manager and suggested it would be a good idea if she got the job. Fortunately, she did get the job and we got together a few months after she started.”
But not all inter-office liaisons read like a Jane Austen novel. Entrepreneur and Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry had a high-profile workplace relationship when she dated fellow contestant Syed Ahmed. “We fell into a relationship based on the unnatural surroundings of being on The Apprentice together, where we were very much isolated from normal life,” Dewberry explains.
“With the benefit of hindsight, it didn’t work out, and I wouldn’t involve myself with a work colleague again,” she continues. “I know that sometimes you can’t really help who you’re attracted to, but as much as is humanly possible, I would always try to avoid an inter-work relationship.”
One of the pitfalls of being in a relationship at work is that it can serve as an almighty distraction, says Dewberry. “I think if you want to be successful in the workplace, focus is a key attribute that you need. And when people are in a new relationship, it makes us giddy, it makes us excited, and I think when you apply those elements to a working environment, it really does distract you,” she says.
The other aspect that needs to be taken into account is the feelings and welfare of co-workers, Dewberry points out. “I think people involved in an inter-office relationship need to maintain a professional distance from one another in the workplace, and I would make sure that it never compromised any of my colleagues, either,” she says.
Hannah Ford, a lawyer in the employment team of Guildford-based firm Stevens & Bolton said employers need to make sure the concerns of all of a company’s employees are catered for – not just those in the relationship. “You could potentially have issues of making other employees feel uncomfortable in the workplace. All employees have a right to a professional working environment,” says Ford.
Other problems can arise when a relationship is undertaken between a manager and one of their subordinates, she warned. “You can potentially get other employees raising concerns about the relationship and preferential treatment,” she says.
And, of course, as Shakespeare once wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” and it’s a sad inevitability that some relationships don’t work out. This is when employers need to be extra cautious about former-partners commencing legal proceedings, says Ford. “If the relationship breaks down, that’s the point at which claims can crystalise, with employees claiming they’ve been demoted or subject to any sort of detriment as a result of their previous relationship with a superior.”
She also urged caution around confidentiality. “If it’s a junior and a senior in a relationship, how do you restrict confidential information you would normally restrict?” she asks. How companies ensure that the more junior member of staff is not being privy to sensitive company information, for example.
So, how can businesses best handle the inevitable budding relationships between work colleagues? Firstly, accept it’s going to happen, says Ford. In the States, they have tried a much more prescribed approach with ‘Love Contracts’, which indemnifies the company from the ramifications of a relationship breakdown says Ford, but it’s unlikely they’ll catch on here.
“It’s a question of having good policies in place,” says Ford. “Businesses must ensure they have a good staff handbook that deals with the manner in which employees are expected to conduct themselves,” she explains. “It’s about having clear and communicated policies.”