Dangerous Liaisons: When working relationships get personal

A survey last year found that 40% of us have indulged in office romances. Not surprising really, when you consider this is where we spend most of our waking hours, and often socialise with our colleagues after hours. If you have a vacancy for a spouse/soulmate/spring fling, then your biggest pool of candidates for selection is probably at work.

In my HR career I’ve seen couples meet, marry and stay together at work. I’ve also had to do damage limitation for dramatic break-ups and brief encounters that would be worthy of any soap opera, plus a few X-rated movies! The road to workplace romance is paved with potholes (I think the Council were resurfacing it, but they ran out of money). Here’s a few FAQs on those dangerous liaisons…

Are workplace relationships allowed?

Depends on your workplace! Under 15% of organisations have a formal policy in place (such as prohibiting hierarchical relationships), but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t frowned on. Many organisations are wary of workplace romances in case of potential fallout when people fall out, such as sexual harassment claims.  So be aware of any policy, and adhere to it – better than keeping things a secret and risking being found out and disciplined, or worse!

I’ve got the hots for someone at work – what should I do about it?

Firstly, put the fantasies on hold for a moment and have a reality check. Is the other person interested? If not, any advances could be seen as harassment. Even if they reciprocate, is this just a hormone-charged crush, fuelled by a set of temporary circumstances like working late together or a boozy office party? Or is there a real potential for a long-term relationship?  Do they work in your department? Are they more senior or junior than you? Are they renowned for being the office Romeo? All of these things are worth taking into account before you take the watercooler flirting to the next step, as they will all have some bearing on the below issues…

What will other people think?

That could depend on who it is you’re seeing. If it’s your boss, cynical types may think you’re trying to boost your career or curry favours – not conducive to workplace harmony! Same-sex relationships may be doubly difficult (but remember you’re protected by discrimination law). You also don’t want to get yourself a reputation – and frustratingly, the reputations we get are never as flattering as the ones the guys get! I knew a couple who were caught ‘in flagrante delicto’ at work – he was hailed as a hero by workmates, while she received anonymous crudely-drawn willies in the internal mail. Nice.

Research shows that while colleagues are frequently disapproving of a frivolous fling or a career-enhancing connection, they are more condoning of something perceived to be a serious relationship. But people will always gossip, so be wary of who you tell – you don’t want the information falling into the wrong hands!

How will it affect my work?

Again, depends on the nature of the relationship! If you’re blissfully happy, it could improve your morale, motivation and productivity. Alternatively, you could be distracted, make mistakes, neglect your work or, as in one case I came across, be constantly sneaking off for lascivious liaisons in the store cupboard. Which probably won’t win you the Employee of the Month award really.

How can I get away with it?

The big rule is be discreet, so no public displays of affection (this doesn’t mean playing footsie under the boardroom table instead!) Stay professional at all times – this includes keeping your fights outside work as well as your flirts. And while you may love the thrill of the illicit, avoid acting out those ‘office sex’ fantasies! With desktop rumpy-pumpy you’re risking a lot more than a random staple in the bottom – is it really worth it?

What if we break up?

Sorry to be cynical here, but statistically speaking, you probably will. If you’re lucky you’ll go back to being platonic, professional colleagues. But then again… Can you really continue to work together? If it’s an acrimonious split, one or both of you may be too distressed for that to be possible. If your ex is your boss, they could make your life a misery or even damage your career. What if one of you is still pestering the other for a reunion, or continuing hostilities? The worst-case scenario is if it becomes litigious.   I once had a case where 2 people had split acrimoniously and one took out a restraining order against the other, meaning they had to stay at least 50 yards apart.  Not easy when they worked in the same office! Ultimately, one of you may have to leave  – and sadly in these cases, it is usually the woman that does so, particularly if they are the more junior person.

Could I be dismissed?

If your company policy clearly states restrictions on romance and you breach the policy, then yes, this could be classed as gross misconduct. If there are no stipulations in place, you could still be disciplined or dismissed for misconduct if you have been harassing someone or causing workplace disruption. Larger companies may be able to redeploy one of you to keep you apart, but smaller organisations may not have the resources to do this, which could lead to dismissal. Employers can potentially resort to the legal catch-all of ‘Some Other Substantial  Reason’ for dismissal – for example if they claim that your working relationship is no longer tenable and the business is being adversely affected by it.


So these are some of the potential pitfalls. In short, be as sure as you can be before you take the plunge. Who knows, maybe you will live happily ever after! But then can you really both live and work with this person, or will it all be too much? Even for the successful romances, maybe work just isn’t the best place in the long run!

Tara Daynes

Tara Daynes FCIPD, MSSP, is a fully qualified freelance HR and training consultant with 16 years’ post-graduate experience. She is a qualified Employment Law Paralegal & a registered Investors In People adviser/assessor. Specialising in employment law & business training, Tara helps organisations improve their business performance through how they manage & develop their staff. This includes start-up HR functions for SMEs, writing people management policies and procedures and staff handbooks, and providing training for line management and staff on key issues. Email taradaynes@gmail.com or visit www.taradayneshr.com for more information. Connect with Tara at Linked In, Tweet her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook

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