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Workplace romances: our research  

We are working on a new resource for employers about workplace romances. A version of this article was published in The People Bulletin on September 22 2010.

Is the British workplace a hotbed of sexual and romantic intrigue?  Is the office romance booming (at a time when little else is)?  And if so, should employers be bothered, or should they treat employees’ private relationships as private and leave them well alone?  

There is so little data to answer these questions that Angel Productions decided to conduct its own survey.  The purpose was to get an idea of what’s happening, to help us design a new training resource to help managers to deal with workplace romances – or to leave them alone.  Responses to our survey came from small, medium and large workplaces, and from every sector including banks, charities, universities and construction firms.  There were not enough responses for us to claim great scientific validity, but enough to build a fascinating picture.  Altogether, 26 HR managers answered our questions, as did 27 men and women of all ages who have been in workplace relationships (including two same sex relationships).  

A lot of it about?

The managers in our survey were divided about whether workplace relationships have become more common in the last 5 years, but a small majority believe they have.  If true, this is perhaps surprising, during a period when internet dating has boomed, offering people a new alternative to finding partners at work.  According to Dr Lisa Matthewman, an occupational psychologist who is conducting research on this subject at Westminster University , the recession could be playing a part: “People are anxious and working under pressure, and a culture of presenteeism is rife.  Working together for long hours, some may turn to each other and to sex to relieve the stress.”  

The individuals in our survey described relationships with colleagues, some working closely in the same teams, some in different departments at work; some with the boss, others with colleagues at the same level; some very brief, but mostly lasting more than a year.  Asked about their motives for starting the relationship, most referred to love or lust (or both) and nobody admitted to work-related reasons such as seeking promotion.  A third felt able to be open about the relationship with colleagues and managers, another third had kept it secret, and the rest had been selective about who they ‘came out’ to at work.  Half the relationships were between two single people, but half involved at least one partner who was married, living with someone or already in a relationship.  

Costs and benefits

What, then, of the costs and benefits of these relationships?  Presumably those involved got something out of them, but this was not what we asked.  We wanted to know the impact on the workplace.  More than half the HR managers told us they did not think relationships often caused problems at work, but a substantial 39 percent felt that they did.  One mentioned “perceived problems from other employees who assume there is preferential treatment, especially if it is a line manager and subordinate”, and several other managers referred to favouritism, real or perceived.  Conflicts of interest and issues of confidentiality were also mentioned.  To balance the picture we also asked the managers if relationships often have beneficial results at work.  Most said no, but two of them said yes, one of them explaining that “We actively encourage friends and family to join [the organisation] via a recommend a friend recruitment scheme, so we can hardly put the dampers on relationships that arise out of working together”.  

The employees in our survey took a far more positive view than the managers of the impact of their relationships at work.  Most said it had made no difference to their productivity, with just 6 saying they had been less productive and 4 claiming to have become more productive.  Only 30% believed the relationship had caused any problems for their employers or colleagues, two of them mentioning the practical issue of wanting to take holidays together.  Others referred to divided loyalties and one “got the impression some staff members felt that I favoured the staff member I was seeing”.  But 5 of our respondents spoke of positive benefits at work from their relationships.  They mentioned collaborative working, social interaction between departments, completing projects together out of hours, and one whose attitude had been so changed by her partner that she had taken on more responsibility and become a senior manager.  One stated simply, “I was a happier person to work with”.  This, according to Lisa Matthewman, is unsurprising: “Someone who is in love, or even just lust, is likely to be more creative, energetic and positive.  They will be happy to go to work knowing they will see the object of their affections.”  

How to understand this difference in perception between the managers and the individuals in relationships?  Are the HR managers heartless killjoys and control freaks?  Or are the staff self-deluding pleasure seekers, blinded by love or lust to the mayhem they are causing at work?  Or maybe some of each?  

On one point, the individuals were more willing to admit to problems.  Nearly half of those whose relationships had ended, said the split had led to problems at work: “Awkwardness and generally an unpleasant atmosphere, what a ******* mistake!” said one man.  This was echoed, less colourfully, by others including a woman who “was very distracted, and very upset for quite a few weeks. If I saw him in the corridor it would always put me back to square one.”  Of course all staff can be upset and distracted by life events, whether involving a workplace romance or not.  But if two members of a team are distracted at the same time, and troubled by each other’s company, this must be hard for the team.  

Policies and discretion

Few organisations appear to have a consistently enforced policy about workplace relationships.  Less than half our sample of managers, mainly in the larger organisations, said their organisation had any kind of policy, and not all of these were formal, written policies.  Even where policies exist, only a third said they were consistently enforced, the rest giving managers discretion to be flexible or to turn a blind eye.  Most of the policies required staff to disclose relationships to managers, and if action was taken, it was normally to ensure that nobody was managed or supervised by a partner, or to prevent fraudulent financial transactions.  

With so little policy and so much discretion for managers, it’s easy to imagine managers ducking sensitive issues for fear of getting their interventions wrong.  Asked whether HR professionals in their organisations knew how to respond to staff’s relationships, only 70% of the HR managers in our sample said yes.  And asked the same question about line managers, only half of our HR managers thought line managers knew how to act.  Several of our sample of employees reported passive or clumsy management action: “They ignored the relationship, which suited me;” “Didn’t really say anything;” “Whilst no concerns were actually voiced it was apparent that they were not comfortable with the relationship;” “Unfounded concerns around confidentiality caused managers to leave me out of decision making ... I eventually left the organisation.”  

Training need

What emerges is a clear training need for managers: not to turn them all into repressive killjoys, but to help them pinpoint exactly when relationships among staff might cause fallout at work, and to know how best to act when that is the case.  The main problem areas identified by our survey are:

By clarifying exactly where the potential problems lie, managers can be helped to intervene sensitively, appropriately and constructively, instead of ducking difficult issues or blundering in clumsily; that is what we aim to do with our new training resource.  Equally importantly, managers can be permitted to sit back and mind their own business when relationships between staff do nobody any harm.  After all, any organisation that employs human resources must remember that they are human, and not just resources, and therefore expect a little normal human behaviour.

Stephen Engelhard    © Angel Productions 2010