Are office romances a productivity killer?

Not all office romances are doomed to die, according to experts, citing how Barack and Michelle Obama famously met while working at the same law firm in the 80s. If office romances are unavoidable, what can managers to do prevent personal relationships from hindering productivity?

Studies into office romances reveal that 8.85 million employees in the UK have had a relationship with a colleague at some point in their career, and some of these have led to drama, tears, and distractions from work. Are office romances worth the effort? And as a business owner, how much can you do to make sure your employees separate the professional from the personal.

A nation of overworked, underproductive staff

A quarter of UK workers admit to having had an office romance, with nearly half believing that it is acceptable to date someone that you work with, according to research from job site, CV-Library. This may not be surprising, considering how the UK workforce works longer hours than most other nations.

CV-Library surveyed over 1,000 UK employees on the topic, and found out that three in four believe workplace relationships can cause problems. If it works out, there’s the issue of having to work with your significant other, which is unappealing to 71.1 per cent of the surveyed employees. If it doesn’t work out, there’s always the issue of having to deal with a tense work environment.  A quarter of those surveyed who had an office romance at some point felt that it had impacted their career.

One in seven employees reportedly quit their jobs once an office romance sours, according to a separate study of 1,000 employees from Perkbox, which makes this a direct concern for talent retention. More men (20 per cent) than women (12 per cent) resigned because of this, while the vast majority of workers aged between 35 and 54 stuck it out at work, despite having to work with their old flames. The study revealed that only 17 per cent of workplace couplings have resulted in long-term relationships, marriages or civil partnerships.

The top problems that people think they can cause include bringing private issues to the workplace, making co-workers feel uncomfortable, awkward situations if the couple was to break up, and that it could lead to favouritism in the workplace.

CV-Library founder and MD, Lee Biggins, believes that there may still be taboos around office romances, but research suggests that UK workers are more up for workplace relationships than originally anticipated. “It’s clear that while some employees do value relationships in the workplace, there can potentially be some problems if not dealt with appropriately. Remember: it’s always best to remain professional at work so if you are looking for love around the office, try to keep it out of hours!”

One in three managers want to know about it

Findings from the study by Perkbox suggests that if employees were to engage in personal relationships at work, one in three managers would rather know about it than be kept in the dark.

A third of UK bosses believe employees to inform them if they are going through emotional trouble, including when they break up. However, 46 per cent believe that employees should keep personal matters to themselves. Two in three UK managers stated they have no problems with office romances, provided that this did not impact on an employee’s job.

This despite the fact that a quarter of workplaces confirmed that they had policies in place to discourage romantic relationships at work. 7 per cent had this in writing in employment contracts, while 18 per cent have an unspoken rule against workplace romances.

Empathy and emotional intelligence matters

Overall, 45 per cent of employees stated that their employer had been supportive when they confided in their boss about their emotional difficulties, but businesses in London were notorious for having less than understanding bosses, according to the study.

According to Perkbox, “emotional intelligence” describes an ability to recognise and understand emotions and its impact on behaviour. It may dictate how effectively and respectfully a manager treats his or her employees, and how an employee may communicate with his or her colleagues – particularly within stressful situations, from managing deadline pressures to dealing with workplace conflict and personal trauma.

The study found that seven in ten employees believed emotional intelligence to be very important in their job role, while eight in ten said it was even more important for bosses to possess and exercise this trait. The most cited reasons included the belief that it made bosses fairer and more empathetic, it made employees feel that the company cared about their wellbeing, and that it improved teamwork and morale.

However, over a quarter of UK bosses viewed emotional intelligence as unimportant, with 44 per cent maintaining that employees should be professional and do their job regardless of their emotions and private lives.

Empathetic bosses can make the difference between a strong talent staying or leaving, despite dramatic relationships at work. “Today’s office is a theatre in which many of our everyday human dramas unfold – love, hate, friendships and conflict are all inevitably played out in the realms of our nine-to-five job. Having the emotional intelligence to navigate these challenges productively is absolutely vital in ensuring employees effectively self-regulate their emotions in the workplace and understand the impact it might have on other colleagues. It also ensures that managers remain professional and empathetic in dealing with their employees’ emotional well being,” Perkbox co-founder, Chieu Cao, explained.

“Effective employee engagement must absolutely include processes for managing emotional wellness. Neglecting to do so can have numerous implications on the physical wellness of the employee and therefore the ability to do the job at hand, to the personal resentment harboured at management for lack of support and imparting good old-fashioned human empathy,” he said.

“The sooner bosses are able to get to grips with this – the most critical of all so-called ‘soft skills’ – using engagement tools and through training, the more adept they will be at creating the kind of inspirational work environment that employs the most successful and productive of teams.”

Gender differences

The Perkbox study highlights a break from the stereotype: men are likely to be more open with their emotions, confide in their bosses about affairs of the heart and be more accepting of workplace romances than women.

Men appear to be more accepting of workplace relationships than women by 9 percentage points. Two in three believe that office romances aren’t a problem as long as it doesn’t interfere with work. 27 per cent of men believe that love affairs between colleagues are no one else’s business other than that of the two people involved.

The research also showed that 60 per cent of men would feel comfortable confiding in their bosses on personal issues such as the break-up of a relationship with a partner or spouse, if they felt that it would interfere with them doing their job properly. Only half of women said the same.

“It’s encouraging to see that men are becoming more open with their emotions and are confiding more in their bosses when it comes to affairs of the heart, as it goes against the very stereotypical codes of behaviour dictating how a man should emotionally conduct themselves professionally,” Cao explained.

“By contrast, women’s reluctance to open up emotionally at work serves to highlight the continuing challenges they face in business – to rebuke the gender-based conventional codes that posit them ‘too emotional’ and instead to be more poker faced and composed in the face of difficulty, lest the act of displaying or confiding in harms their career prospects.”


Cupid and co-workers: a legal view

As Valentine’s Day approaches, Donald MacKinnon, director of legal services at LAW At Work suggests employers should keep an open mind when it comes to office romances. “Although some bosses would rather their staff were not struck by cupid’s arrow, we would advise taking a realistic approach to managing these situations. As long as two workers manage their workload without their relationship affecting others there should be no major issues. The main concern for the employers we deal with is the fall out when love turns sour and the fear of cases of sexual harassment or unfair dismissals,” he said.

So for employers managing affairs of the heart, here are six top tips from MacKinnon.

  1. Relationship status update. Don’t expect employees to alert you to a first date – this is a delicate time and not something they will want to flag to HR or the boss. If you really want to know if employees are in a relationship, make it clear at what stage they must alert you.
  2. Performance. Your staff should already know what is expected of them in terms of their work performance. If you suspect the quality of their work is being affected by the relationship – then address this in the same way you would do with any poor performance.
  3. The allure of power. Guidelines as to what happens if one person in the relationship is more senior or manages the other person should be part of any policy e.g. the manager has to move to another department.
  4. Love doctor. If you are alerted to an office romance, it doesn’t mean that the couple should turn to you if their relationship hits a bump on the road. Similarly, the information should be kept private if that is the request of the couple involved. Many employers tell us their key concern over an office romance is because it leads to gossip which wastes time and can lead to distrust and dissatisfaction, which in turn can affect morale.
  5. Moving on. Put in place procedures that you and staff can follow should an office romance break down. Ensure that all staff, both new and existing, are aware of these policies that they understand the consequences before they make the decision to get involved.
  6. Personal relationship policy: A suitable policy is the key to helping employers reduce liability when it comes to interoffice relationship problems. An email to all staff or note in a work contract is not enough. Give effective training where the policy is explained and all employees sign a checklist to confirm their attendance.

“A third of office romances lead to marriage, including one of the world’s most famous couples, Barack and Michelle Obama who met at a law firm in the 80s; yet, not all co-worker love stories are so successful,” he added. “With a little planning, employers can help the work keep flowing even if the course of true love does not run smooth this Valentine’ day.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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