March 9, 2018

How to approach an office romance

We spend a lot of time at work, so it’s natural that we develop friendships – and relationships – with our colleagues. But an office romance can be risky business. That’s why we’ve developed this guide to getting it right.

We spend a good portion of our lives at work, so it’s only natural that we develop friendships with our colleagues. And it’s also only natural that sometimes our friendships develop into something more.

But when there’s work involved, there are often greater risks to consider than just putting your heart on the line. That’s why we’ve written this guide to help you navigate the right way to a workplace romance.

  1. Treat Facebook with caution

In today’s world, we’ve gotten used to jumping straight onto social media and connecting with everyone we meet. So, after a few drinks on a Friday night with your new-found work buddies, it can be tempting to “friend” them on Facebook, too. But there are inherent risks in doing this, which we think it pays to consider before sending that request. These include the chance that you’ll like the wrong post, join the wrong group or do something that gets you noticed for reasons you’d rather not be known for. There’s also the risk that you’ll upset the politics of the place by friending the wrong person or not friending the right one.

And when it comes to potential harassment issues, social media is fraught also – that late night inappropriate Facebook post commenting on a Bali bikini shot can get you in hot water!

So, a word of warning, if you’ve taken that step and friended someone at work – or they’re following you on Instagram – be mindful of what you post and your privacy settings. (These days we all know someone who’s called in sick only to post a picture on Facebook of their day at the beach – we like to call this a career-limiting move!)

And, in the meantime, why not consider a safer alternative, like LinkedIn?

  1. Think long and hard before making a move

Every time we run harassment training with a client we’re invariably asked the same thing: when can I – and when can’t I – make a move? Unfortunately, the answer is never straight-forward…

By definition, sexual harassment refers to “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating or offensive work environment.” What constitutes any of these things is not always cut and dry, and a lot will depend on the individuals and circumstances involved.

Our advice? Ask permission before making a move and always accept that a no means no. “Sorry, I’m not interested” is not a hint that you should try harder next time!

  1. Consider whether there’s a conflict of interest

If a relationship is going to create a conflict of interest – or even if it will give the perception of a conflict of interest – you should always be open with your manager and let them know what’s happening.

This is particularly important where there is a power imbalance between the parties. For instance, the high publicity romantic relationship between Seven West Media CEO, Tim Worner, and former executive assistant Amber Harrison was made even more complicated because of the relative position of the two within the company. More recently, two male AFL executives were publicly shamed and forced to resign after affairs with lower-ranked female employees.

Peer-to-peer relationships are less problematic but can still give rise to tensions in the workplace if co-workers feel they are compromised in their professional dealings with one or both parties.

It’s a good idea to have some guidelines or policies for employees to refer to, outlining what is expected when two employees become seriously involved.

  1. Establish boundaries

Employers are vicariously liable for the behaviour of their employees when at work. Therefore, they have the right (and duty of care, in some instances) to take action against an employee who has behaved in an inappropriate manner. This issue could come up if someone is “making a move” and it’s not welcome (see above), or if a previously happy relationship has turned sour and this is now impacting performance or behaviour. It may even extend to a situation where two employees are in a consensual relationship and someone else witnesses an intimate interaction that has made them uncomfortable.

To avoid this happening, if you’re in the early stages of a relationship, you could consider making a rule that you’ll only carry on the relationship outside of work. This doesn’t mean not disclosing the relationship if there could be a conflict of interest – just keeping your interactions at work professional and waiting until you’re on the train or at home to use those daggy pet names.

That way, if things don’t work out, there’s a more of a chance you may be able to continue on at work with minimal impact from the breakup.

  1. Be prepared for things to go pear-shaped

Even with the best of intentions, romantic relationships can break down. When that happens, a clean break is usually the best option. If that’s not possible, then you should at least try to limit the likelihood of having to spend time together.

But when you work in the same office – or you’re rostered onto the same shift – that can be hard to achieve. It can get even more complicated when the whole office or worksite knows what’s going on and starts to take sides, or when your ex can’t stay professional post break-up.

In fact, it can be a recipe for disaster – not just for you and your ex but for the whole team or even the whole business, if it’s a small one.

So before you take the plunge and make a move, pause to think about what you’d do if there’s a messy break up involved. Maturity mostly prevails, but not always.

It’s always such a shame when one party feels they must leave their job just to make a clean break.

One last thing…..

When it comes to office relationships, it’s always best to err on the side of caution, and where possible, take some time to consider the possible consequences. But we all know that’s much easier said than done – especially in the heat of the moment!

So, if you’re an employer, don’t be naïve to think that relationships are not forming in your workplace right now and be ready to manage any potentially sticky situations.

And if you are an employee and you’ve fallen madly in love with your co-worker, hopefully, these feelings are reciprocated and you can both work out a plan for managing your passions. And if your love is unrequited, leave it be and take up tennis!

Want more?

If you’d like to help developing a policy on workplace relationships for your business, or assistance with managing behaviours or conflicts that are already present, get in touch.

say hi to our author

Merilyn founded Catalina Consultants in 2012 on the belief that all organisations, regardless of size, should have access to top quality bespoke HR services. She enjoys working closely with her clients and believes that the best results are built on relationships of rapport, trust and authenticity. Growing up, Merilyn had her sight set on stardom and dreamed of becoming an actor. She also sang and played the piano, but ended up studying accounting and HR. Whilst she hasn’t won her Grammy just yet, she still loves a good karaoke night. Merilyn loves to travel with her family, with South Africa being one of her most memorable destinations.

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