The workplace relationship is one of the trickiest issues that crop up in an office, mainly because it is such a grey area.
Some people have ironclad beliefs that workplace dating — or any kind of romantic relationship with colleagues — is an absolute no-fly zone. Others feel it’s a natural fact of life and can’t be avoided.
Either way, workplace relationships present a number of issues that need to be dealt with, both from an individual and organisational perspective. Is it ok? How do you do it? What are the dos and don’ts? Can you make policies about it?
In this article, we answer all of these questions.
As mentioned, some people hold different opinions on this. But in general terms, there is no absolute reason why work relationships should not be allowed. There are, however, some situations in which work relationships can pose problems, whether formal or informal.
In a formal sense, workplace relationships are problematic if they lead to conflicts of interest or if they involve any kind of sexual harassment. We’ll talk more about these below.
In an informal sense, workplace relationships can lead to some issues of practicality, meaning that they affect the dynamics of the office and, in extreme cases, the ability of a business to perform at its best.
So if we are to answer the question of whether workplace dating is OK, we need to dig a little deeper.
There is no legal prohibition to asking a colleague out on a date, but the way in which the asking is done can affect this.
If you do ask a colleague out on a date, you can’t be putting that person in a position of unreasonable discomfort. If, for example, you hold a position of power over the other person, this can be a factor that makes the proposition intimidating. Also, if you ask someone out on a date it should be done discretely because the other person has a right not to be subjected to embarrassment.
In general, you should think hard before asking a colleague out on a date, giving particular consideration to the possible ways that doing so will affect the other person.
You should also think further into the future, considering how dating a colleague may impact the way a business operates. In particular, you should think about the possibility of how a potential break-up will affect the way work can be done (hard to imagine when you’ve been struck by cupid’s arrow, however).
If you do get into a relationship with someone at work, you need to understand that you hold certain obligations to your colleagues. This is because, in a workplace, networks of relationships are everything. If two people enter into a romantic relationship, this can affect the whole network.
For example, if someone knows that two colleagues are in a relationship, it can affect how they feel they should communicate with them. Likewise, employers might face awkwardness around how they allocate tasks, offer promotions, give feedback, and so forth. Here are some considerations.
To mitigate any potential issues, it’s a good idea for workplace couples to have very clear boundaries in place that keep work separated from their romantic life. In practice, this means avoiding overt displays of affection, keeping personal disputes out of the office, and making sure communication is always work-related.
Depending on the circumstances, it can also be a good idea for those who are dating in the workplace to be open with their colleagues about it. This can be helpful in assuring colleagues that the relationship will not affect the way things already work.
Couples should be aware that, even if they don’t do anything in particular to cause it, colleagues may feel excluded by the formation of a new workplace relationship. For example, they might feel as though the couple would prefer to spend break times with each other, rather than with the rest of the team.
Although it’s fine to have a lunch date, obviously, couples should go out of their way to make sure they keep all of their other workplace relationships going. As a rule, you have enough time outside of work to spend with your partner, so there’s no great reason why you need to spend a lot of time with them at work.
It can be a very hard thing to put policies in place around workplace relationships because romance is something that is in some sense intrinsically ‘bigger’ than work. People have written poems and songs about love for thousands of years for a reason — and far fewer songs and poems have been written about the joys of workplace productivity.
Trying to stop workplace relationships from forming most likely won’t work and can cause more harm than good — although it can be a good idea to encourage employees to think about the implications of what they’re doing before they do it.
The best approach for employers to take is a pragmatic one. They need to understand that a workplace relationship is a possibility and they need to be sensitive to both those who are in the relationship and those who are not.
Employers should already have clear-cut sexual harassment policies. But it should be a priority to inform workers about legal obligations regarding sexual harassment arising from relationships. We’ll talk more about sexual harassment and workplace dating further down.
It can be a good idea to ask employees to be upfront about their relationships because this can make planning much easier — planning for promotions, task allocations, and leadership hierarchies, for example. However, employers do not have the legal right to force employees to disclose relationships unless the disclosure relates to a conflict of interest that may arise from that relationship.
When a work relationship gives rise to a conflict of interest, employers do have rights concerning the disclosure of workplace relationships. In some cases, employers actually have legal obligations to know about workplace relationships and to take action with regard to them.
For example, employers may be obliged to remove an employee from a particular task because of a potential conflict of interest, or they may be obliged to notify a client of the relationship.
Lastly, employers do have the right to enforce standards of professionalism, which may mean that they can say no to overt affection in the workplace or passionate disputes not related to work. But these policies need to be used sensitively and in a fair manner. No double standards.
When thinking about dating in the workplace, there is often an added complication of power dynamics. By this, we mean that each individual is at a different level of the business’ formal hierarchy of responsibility.
While this is not inherently a problem, it can be in many cases. For example, superiors cannot be seen to be giving preferential treatment to their romantic partner (in the form of feedback, promotions, client assignment, etc.). Likewise, power dynamics themselves can be compromised if a superior doesn’t feel like they can treat their romantic partner as any other colleague.
If relationships do occur across different levels of a company hierarchy, the best policy is usually just to try to separate the pair before even the possibility of an issue emerges.
We’ve gone through a number of the major obstacles that people need to navigate when pursuing a workplace relationship, but probably the most important issue that needs to be highlighted is a legal one: sexual harassment.
There are two ways that sexual harassment can enter into the equation of a workplace relationship, and employers and employees need to be aware of both of them.
The first issue is more obvious, occurring when one worker is trying to pursue some form of romantic relationship with another worker and the advances are unwelcome. This can happen in some fairly obvious ways, such as one worker continually asking another out on a date. It can also happen less explicitly, for example when a worker is showing undue attention to another worker in a persistent and uncomfortable fashion.
The second issue arises when sexual harassment follows in the wake of a consensual romantic relationship. Often, workers will enter into consensual relationships — whether for a night or for a year — but then one of the pair decides that they don’t want it to continue. Sometimes, colleagues are less able to see sexual harassment in this situation.
But the fact is that Australian workers have a legal right to not be sexually harassed while at work, and this right doesn’t disappear just because they have previously been in relationships with people.
The burden falls on both the person perpetrating the harassment as well as the employer. While the perpetrator can be legally sanctioned for doing, employers have obligations to ensure their employees are not subjected to sexual harassment at work.
The jury returns a verdict of not guilty on this one, but it offers quite a few recommendations to the accused.
There’s nothing absolutely wrong with dating a colleague, but there are certainly some bad ways of doing it.
But by being respectful and open, there is a good chance that you will avoid all of them