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Gotta love your work (mates)

Is work the place for passion or prudence? Is dating your director doomed to disaster? Sally Mills discusses the (always hot) talking point of the office romance — and how to avoid it getting messy.

Workplace romances are pretty common. Let’s face it, we spend a third, or more, of our lives at work, so we’re bound to bond – one way or another.

With longer work hours, post-work drinks and office parties, going to work can be like heading for your very own dating service. Sure, love makes the world go ‘round.

Or at least it can feel pretty much like that when you’re deep in the spin of a romantic encounter.

But in the workplace, a romantic tête-à-tête can be fraught with dangers and pitfalls – for both employee and employer. As a small business owner, I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with the office romance. Many long-term relationships and marriages have started in the workplace.

What does bother me is the inappropriate behaviour that can go with some relationships and, of course, the potential lack of productivity that can easily follow.

Problems arise if, and when, the relationship goes pear-shaped.

Avoid workers’ sex lives getting messy

How many of us have witnessed public slanging matches, messy affairs involving married colleagues, jealousy, bickering – maybe even violence and emotional distress?

The worst-case scenario sees lawsuits for discrimination, sexual harassment or unfair dismissal. An affair can also create problems for co-workers. If a relationship isn’t handled with discretion, it can disrupt the office and harm teamwork.

If the romance involves a manager or a married colleague, it can also invite charges of favouritism and violate ethical values. Other employees may feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, or upset about the romance and ultimately lose respect for their colleagues and their managers.

Given all of this, should small business owners try to put a stop to office romances?

I don’t think it’s really possible to prevent them, but you can at least put policies in place to stave off potential problems.

Be clear and to the point both about company policies regarding boundaries and behaviours expected from employees. You should also be up-front about the actions that will be taken if these are not heeded. Implementing these sorts of procedures should make dealing with this potentially dangerous situation a lot easier.

You know the old adage: ‘Everything is okay until it’s not.’ In a small business, things can very quickly go very badly not okay.

While researching the topic of office romance, I was interested to discover that in the US, co-workers who are in a relationship can sign a “consensual relationship agreement”, more commonly known as a “love contract”. The contract is brokered by a law firm and is a legal agreement between the two employees, confirming they are in a consensual relationship. Both colleagues sign the document, and this allows them to come clean with their employers and colleagues about their affair. It effectively protects both parties from future sexual harassment claims if things head south. But, interestingly, the love contract also covers the employer from any lawsuits that may follow if the relationship disintegrates.

Maybe we should take a leaf out of our US neighbours’ books and incorporate a loved policy into our contracts of employment. You know the sort of thing – just leave a space for the other person to ‘insert name here. It could make everyone’s life a lot easier, and provide a safe way to put love back on the official agenda! Sally Mills is CEO of Lavolta, an executive recruitment firm specialising in digital markets.

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