Will an Office Romance Damage Your Career?

Illustration: Oscar Bolton Green

When Polly Arrowsmith needed to take time off from her IT company to care for her dying mother, she asked one of her workers to help out in her absence. She had one big task for him to take care of while she was gone: Let go an underperforming member of staff before a certain date, when redundancy payments would become mandatory.

He initially agreed, but failed to mention one thing: He was in a secret relationship with the employee.

When Arrowsmith returned to work a few months later, she was shocked to find that the firing hadn’t happened. Her employee couldn’t bring himself to fire the woman he loved — which meant that Arrowsmith needed to do it, and stump up thousands of pounds for a redundancy payout, too.

“It was a big betrayal of trust and I felt like an idiot because a lot of my staff knew and I didn’t,” said Arrowsmith.

Why we love office romances
Despite the delicate and potentially difficult consequences of love at work, office romances became common in the 20th Century as women moved into the workplace, and as jobs became a more significant part of people’s lives and identities.

As many as one in four American workers had been in an office romance by the mid-1990s according to a poll quoted in a research paper by researchers then at the University of Northern Colorado. In 1995, the Los Angeles Times called office romances “a fact of company life,” noting that AT&T had more than 8,000 married couples among its 250,000 US employees.

And not all office romances were within marriages — offices became the “danger zone” for illicit affairs, according to one relationship counsellor in her 2004 book. She wrote that in the years leading up to 1990, 38% of the cheating wives she treated were seeing someone from work. That figure rose to 50% in the 1990s.

It’s not so different in the UK. A 2022 survey found that one in four admitted to having a “romantic encounter” with a colleague. “Collecting the stats made me realize it’s not something that’s isolated to a particular industry or sector, it happens everywhere,” said Tina Chander, head of employment law at Wright Hassall, a law firm based in Royal Leamington Spa that compiled the numbers.

When the relationships go well, there may even be reasons for businesses to encourage them — research shows that finding love at work can make people enjoy their jobs more, improve morale and boost productivity.

This happy prevalence of office romances is echoed by Emma Hollingsworth, 36, who met her husband Richard, 37, on the third day of their accountancy graduate scheme in the City of London 15 years ago. “We were sat next to each other in a training course and I thought he was really funny,” she said.

Working together over the next few years made her job far more pleasant, as the couple — who today have three children — could talk over their work instant message system and sync up their schedules. “We could get up, go to the gym together, have breakfast and then go into the office together,” she said. “It made the commute so nice and you could have lunch together.”

However, there are signs that the office romance might be fading in popularity. While 21% of Americans aged 50-64 met their partner at work, just 13% of people 18-29 did so, according to the Pew Research Center. Perhaps this is not a surprise, given today there are myriad ways to meet a date. Indeed, a fifth of the younger age group met their partner online, according to the study.

Cultural changes have shaken office relationships, as well. The MeToo movement challenged perceptions of what’s acceptable in the workplace, and even consensual relationships are now deemed inappropriate on many occasions. Cases in point: McDonald’s Corp. CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired in November 2019 over a consensual worker relationship as it violated company policy. In February 2022, CNN President Jeff Zucker quit after a years-long consensual relationship with a colleague was unveiled.

Think through the risks first

Horror stories about workplace romances are common enough that there are entire companies set up to help mitigate the business risk of trysts. Andy Coley runs Professional Boundaries, a training organization that does most of its business by mopping up after something has gone badly wrong in a relationship at work.

In one case, he was brought in by a charity to deal with the aftermath of an office love triangle: a woman married to one coworker — but pregnant with the baby of another.

“People can have affairs if [they] want, but when all three people work in the company, and one about to go off on maternity leave, then the two others left behind?” he said. “You could lose 20% of your workforce in one go from that love triangle.”

The biggest piece of advice in his sessions is encouraging staff to think through the potential pitfalls of acting on an office crush, and making sure the connection is strong enough to warrant pursuing it. He asks them to consider questions of themselves, including: “What is it about this person that I’m really attracted to? And would it be true if we weren’t working together?”

As long as they pass those tests, Coley isn’t against dating someone you encounter at work — after all, that’s how he met his wife.

Can I stop my employees dating?

Coley said that relationships at work are basically inevitable, given the long periods of time you spend together, and the occasionally difficult situations.

“In organizations with lots of staff you just will get relationships,” he said. “I’m doing [a course] at a school in July with 120 staff and I guarantee you that some of the people in that room will be in relationships with each other.”

If you’re a boss concerned about the risks of workplace love, it might be tempting to wish that you could stamp them out entirely. But this is difficult to do legally in the UK, says Matt Gingell, an employment lawyer. “It’s important to be aware of the Human Rights Act,” he said. “People do have a right to privacy and family life, and employers need to be aware of that right.”

But it might be “proportionate” to have a disclosure policy, where employees are asked to tell their bosses about significant intimate relationships with colleagues, as long the situation is handled carefully and fairly. He gave an example: “If a senior male manager was having an affair with the junior female employee, they can’t be discriminatory in trying to force the woman to change [her job].”

Gingell added that any negative effects of office romances can be managed under existing policies. “If an employee’s performance is suffering and is maybe because of, for example, relationship issues, then an employer is entitled to go down performance procedures,” he said.

The difficulties of dating your employee — or your boss

Dating someone you manage, or someone who manages you, is very likely to cause problems, said Rachael Gunn, an operations consultant who works on conflict of interest policies, because it can lead to perceived unfairness.

“There have been instances where we’ve had to sit down with them and say because of the nature of the relationship you have it’s not appropriate to continue in those roles, and we’d encourage them to come up with solutions,” she said.

However, simply forcing people out of roles because of a relationship would be very difficult unless you could prove the unfairness, she said.

Arrowsmith’s experience with her errant worker showed how far those issues of unfairness can go when a boss and an employee get together. But that might not matter in the long run for that couple, she said.

“They ended up getting married and they’re still together as far as I’m aware,” she said. “It must have been worth it if you find your life partner that way.”

By Helen Chandler-Wilde

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