Research update… workplace romance


Rise in workplace liaisons no longer a danger…

Workplace romances are on the increase – and employers are increasingly likely to turn a blind eye to behaviour that would once have been reprimanded, according to research by Personnel Today’s sister publication IRS Employment Review.

The survey of HR practitioners in 80 organisations found that half had seen at least one marriage between members of staff in recent years. But one in four had also been hit by a divorce involving co-workers in their organisation.

In around half the organisations, the number of office ‘affairs’ (47%) and marriages or other long-term partnerships (58%) between members of staff had remained the same over the past four years.

But the number reporting an increase in affairs (14%) was three times the number reporting a decrease (5%). The number reporting a rise in marriages and other partnerships (10%) was also higher than the number reporting a fall (4%).

More than seven out of 10 respondents (71%) said they were aware of a romance currently going on in their office, and nine out of 10 (90%) employ at least one married or cohabiting couple.

More than one in three (35%) felt that employers had no right to try to ban consensual relationships between employees. But half (52%) said it depended on the circumstances – and one in eight (12%) thought HR should intervene.


…but employers fear consequences when it all goes wrong

Is an office romance anything to do with HR? The IRS research shows that employers can cite a wide range of reasons why it should be, with concerns about possible conflicts of interest (29%) and complaints of favouritism (26%) most widespread.

These concerns are especially common when the relationship is between a member of staff and their line manager, or to a lesser extent when the two individuals work in the same team or department.

One HR manager’s organisation had been unable to produce a useful policy on workplace relationships as it was well known that two very senior managers were having an affair.

Other concerns include the possible effect on morale (16%) and productivity (16%), fears about problems that might arise if the relationship ends (16%) and worries that the organisation might find itself facing a claim for sexual harassment (15%).

Despite this, some employers reported that workplace romances had actually led to improvements in employee performance and the working environment. Most, however, reported that, in practice, there was very little impact.


…and they reserve the right to do nothing

Not all employers have formal policies on workplace relationships – and any policy that does exist should strike a balance between protecting the interests of the organisation and the rights of employees to a have a private life.

But the IRS survey reveals that the possible consequences of breaking a code of conduct can range from dismissal to nothing at all, depending on the circumstances

Most commonly, employers reserve the right to take no action (60%) or transfer employees to avoid potential conflicts of interest (60%). The possibility of a formal reprimand (56%) is also widely included in HR policies.

Less commonly, employers want the right to refer staff for counselling (24%), to be able to dismiss them (16%) or, in rare cases, to demote them (4%) if they breach the rules.

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