Office romance: love (or lust) in business. What you should consider before you start an office affair

Sir Tim Hunt got into trouble with his comments about falling in love at work. But when it happens, it affects not only the couple but your colleagues too, and HR may even get involved

Sir Tim Hunt recently caused a furore with his ill-advised comment that female scientists fall in love with him, or him with them, in the lab. A Twitter storm duly followed, but amid the verbal warring it has to be admitted that Cupid does shoot his arrow at times into unsuspecting hearts (or loins) in professional environments – and not just science labs.

The list of high-profile couples who met at work is considerable, which just goes to show it can happen to anyone at any time. Bill and Melinda Gates, Michelle and Barack Obama, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are just some of the in the category of couples who met at work.

Closer to home, Keely Hawes and Matthew Macfadyen met on the set of MI-5. Research undertaken in 2013 also found evidence to suggest that people meeting at work have a higher chance of it leading to marriage, compared with romances that begin on holidays or in bars and pubs.

UK employment law and affairs in the workplace

UK case law does not have any indisputable law to follow with regards to workplace relationships. Invariably, it’s up to the HR policies a company has to put rules in place as to how relationships within the professional environment will be handled.

Some professions do see relationships banned outright, such as between doctors and patients or teachers and students, as a relationship between these different people would constitute a grave violation of trust.

If you find yourself in a relationship with someone in your place of work, it’s prudent to seek legal advice. While companies need to tread carefully in how they treat colleagues who have entered into relationships with other colleagues, there is also responsibility on the employee’s part to act in a professional manner and to comply as much as possible with policies that are in place within their company.

Workplace affairs. Barack and Michelle Obama. Wikimedia Commons
Most high profile: Barack and Michelle Obama met in 1989, when they both worked at a Chicago law firm

 

HR issues caused by relationships at work

HR executives are well aware of the right employees have to a private life. However, they have to balance this with creating a professional environment in which everyone is comfortable and the aims of the company are met.

“Relationships in the office don’t only affect two people, they affect the whole floor,” says one HR professional who has had to deal with this issue many times.

“The rumour mill goes into overdrive and lots of productivity is lost.”

Bear in mind that different teams within a company or organisation could be working with confidential information that other colleagues are not always to be privy to. Doubt can grow in people’s minds about whether private information is staying private or being shared.

Sarah, who is a HR director for a listed company in London, says: “I had to deal with a very difficult situation where a senior accountant within the organisation started dating a senior member of the marketing team.

“Both of these people were highly professional and maintained all the appropriate boundaries within the office, but many staff requested meetings with me to share their grievances that information such as payroll information could be shared and not stay confidential.”

Sarah feels that this was not happening, given the high professional standards of the two people involved, but it raised the issue of perception, and that is what she had to manage among the rest of the staff.

Brad Pitt. Angeline Jolie. Mr and Mrs Smith screengrab
Most glamorous: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie famously kept their 2004 on-set affair secret for months

 

Five dos and don’ts of dating a colleague

If you can avoid a workplace romance, do. Not only will you save yourself a lot of angst, but your HR professional will love you for it too. That said, it’s not inconceivable that since we spend more time at work than anywhere else in our lives, you could meet someone special there.

If you find yourself attracted to someone at work, consider the following steps:

  • Think it through carefully. Is it a fleeting attraction that would go away if you didn’t act on it?
  • As unromantic as it sounds, consider what you would feel like if the relationship breaks down. Would it have an effect on your professional reputation?
  • Proceed slowly and let time take its course if you do embark on the relationship.
  • Stay discreet even if the relationship becomes serious.
  • Do not let your guard down too much at after-hours events.

Life is short, and since relationships that start in the workplace often do go the distance, it’s not right to dismiss them out of hand. However, they can be fraught with difficulties and should to be embarked on mindfully and with a lot of maturity.

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