The risks of romance in the workplace - for employers, senior executives and employees

 When Michael Scott proposed to Holly Flax in The Office, he said, "This is where I fell in love with you, and this is where I ask you to marry me."

Office romances happen in the real world too.

We spend so much time at work, it is inevitable that many people will meet their partners in the workplace.

However, when love blossoms at work, it can raise issues for employers and the couple themselves.

Relationships between colleagues is not an area covered by employment legislation and often it is not widely dealt with by many businesses in their workplace policies.

Employers are also reluctant to interfere in the private lives of their employees.

Once employees start dating and have a relationship, however, the level of risk multiplies, for employers, senior executives as well as employees, according to CIPD Ireland.

"Employers with policies will often allow relationships among peer colleagues, or across different sections of the workforce," said Mary Connaughton, Director of CIPD Ireland.

"However, the real risk arises when there is a reporting line between the two employees, even if one is not the direct supervisor of the other person. Such relationships, which involve senior executives are not usually favoured."

Companies can tailor their own policy to outline protocols for relationships between colleagues and this would help protect against any abuse of power in scenarios where a senior executive may become romantically involved with a subordinate, according to HR Buddy CEO Damien McCarthy.

"Some organisations may also decide to have a 'declare policy' or a 'love contract' as it is dubbed in the US, whereby if two colleagues were to become involved in a relationship, it would be declared by both parties so as to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest," he said.

There is no law that states a senior executive should declare a relationship with another employee, but even without a company policy, the need for transparency in behaviour has grown in significance.

"A senior colleague who did not disclose such a relationship is likely to be seen to have breached trust and duty of care when it is eventually found out," said Ms Connaughton.

Even where there isn't a policy in place, it is good practice to disclose a relationship in the workplace

It is beneficial for the junior employee too, and helps prevent others "casting aspersions, making assumptions or allegations around favouritism", said Maeve McElwee, Executive Director, of Employer Relations with Ibec.

Even where no favouritism has taken place, if the junior colleague has benefited in such ways based on merit, it is hard to deny the allegations.

Even where there are no suspicions, such a relationship with a senior executive can result in a negative career impact for the junior colleague because it makes decisions on performance, promotion, and benefits more difficult.

"Employers may have to adjust interview panels to make sure there is no conflict of interest and that the senior executive is not interviewing a junior colleague," Ms Connaughton pointed out.

"And junior colleagues may miss opportunities because of fear of the perception of favouritism."

Attitudes to relationships in the workplace can vary significantly depending on the size of the organisation or the culture of the organisation.

There might be good reasons why a smaller business might want peer colleagues to declare a romance.

Ibec's Maeve McElwee gives the following example: "If you work at a very small audit firm or a very small legal firm, you may both be acting for clients who were transferring a property for instance, and each person in the relationship might be handling the business for two different clients."

"It's not necessarily to say that anything would go wrong but it's really important that that transparency is there," she explained.

Mr McCarthy from HR Buddy said it is actually quite common for relationships between co-workers in a small business to cause problems.

He gives the example of a small workplace with 20 or so employees such as a café, restaurant, bar or retail outlet.

If a manager or supervisor becomes romantically involved with one of his/her team, this can lead to accusations of favouritism, particularly with regard to workload, shift scheduling, rostering, designation of work duties, or favourable annual leave days.

Mr McCarthy said it potentially can have an impact on team dynamics and staff retention.

"This can have more impact in a small business than it can in a large organisation," he said.

"However, a small business has less flexibility to deal with such a scenario as a conflict of interest cannot be remedied by a department transfer like it would in a larger organisation."

Of course, not every romance will work out and it is important that both parties remain as professional as possible.

"The organisation can expect that both parties perform to their best at all times," said Ms Connaughton.

"If there is friction in a relationship, where this is a short-term row or an acrimonious split-up, this can very easily spill over into the workplace."

She said the consequence of collaboration and communication can be serious, and more visible to other colleagues than to the individuals themselves.

Professionalism means being civil to one another in the workplace. A break-up with someone who is also a colleague is especially difficult because it can be awkward or painful to continue working with them.

It may mean having to leave a job or a department and it is something that should be considered before embarking on the relationship in the first place, experts say.

Companies with policies are likely to allow for disciplinary action for a breach of the policy, for example not disclosing it when the policy requires you to do so.

"The severity may depend on the policy wording and the severity of the breach," said CIPD Director.

"However the bigger consequence is often the breach of trust that has taken place, and make it difficult for one or both individuals to remain working with the company."

More seriously, Ms Connaughton said, relationships with senior executives often raise questions about how easy it was for the younger or more junior person to say no if they were not interested. All employers should have sexual harassment policies.

Mr McCarthy from HR Buddy said the least that any workplace should have in place to deal with this issue is dignity & respect in the workplace policy that deals with bullying, harassment & sexual harassment to protect all employees and ensure a safe place of work.

"With regard to consensual relationships though, it is a tricky business that most small employers have not tackled as of yet," he said.

"Perhaps given the many high-profile cases of recent times, many small employers may be wise to have a more robust policy in place."

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