Workplace romances — Essential tips for HR managers & business owners

Phil Kendall

Feb 2022 ⋅ 9 min read

Close up of pair of interlocked hands against background foliage

We spend roughly a third of our waking hours with our coworkers. We solve problems together. We chat. We make each other cups of tea and eat lunch. We sometimes even socialise after hours.

It should come as no surprise to hear, then, that a 2020 YouGov survey reported that one-in-five people met their partner at work.

Whether you’re a care worker in Cleethorpes or a barista in Birmingham, workplace romances happen all the time.

So what should managers do when romance blooms between cubicles or eyes meet over links of Lincolnshire? And what happens if your business’ very own Brangelina, well, does a Brangelina and splits up a few months later?

Today on the RotaCloud blog, we’re providing a simple guide for managers, covering everything from dealing with PDA to the legalities of enforcing a total ban on workplace romances.

Jump to: Should I separate couples at work? | How do I manage PDA? | Can managers legally stop staff dating? | Can I ask staff to sign love contracts? | What should I do if two of my staff break up?

Broaching the subject

Close up of two women talking in a workplace

You’ve noticed their furtive glances and the spring in their step for a while now. Then one day you see two of your employees out in town together, holding hands and whispering like a pair of excited school kids with a secret.

It turns out that two of your best staff are now an item.

So what should you, as their employer or manager, do now?

Unless you work for MI6 or routinely handle files labelled “launch codes”, you should aim to foster a working environment where staff feel comfortable enough to talk about their private lives — that is, if they want to.

Inviting your newly entwined employees into your office to congratulate them (or express concern about how their romance might affect their work), however, will achieve little more than making all three of you feel awkward and their privacy invaded.

Some people simply prefer to keep their work and private lives separate. If your amorous employees don’t want to talk about their private affairs, then that’s their business.

If the pair’s relationship comes up naturally in conversation at work, then great. Otherwise, everything should remain business as usual — because that’s what you expect from them, right?

Try not to fall into the trap of doing things like asking one half of said couple to relay messages to the other, or asking one a question that the other should really be answering — for example, about their recent lateness or whether they're free to cover an upcoming shift.

This can lead to mistakes and misunderstandings, as well as being incredibly annoying for the couple themselves. Treat your staff as individuals and just as you did prior to the start of their relationship.

Should I separate couples at work?

horizontal white line painted on grass

You know your staff. You’ll know whether one of your cooks becoming involved with one of your bartenders will affect their work. But you’ll also be aware that a general manager dating a member of the team she oversees could lead to complications — for them and your business.

Complaints about preferential treatment are common occurrences when subordinate-supervisor relationships spark up at work.

Similarly, some members of your team may feel that their lovestruck colleague’s connection with their manager is giving them an unfair advantage, landing them better shifts or allowing them to arrive late without fear of being reprimanded.

On the flip-side, should their relationship go through a rocky patch, an employee might feel that their boss/boyfriend is being needlessly strict or cold to them.

HR professionals agree that it’s a good idea to have policies regarding senior-subordinate relationships in place, ensuring that the power to make decisions can be given or removed, and lines of communication changed, in the event of a conflict of interest at work.

But instead of making it policy to separate staff the minute they enter into a relationship, it might be better to consider the individuals’ roles in the company and their characters before taking action.

After all, if two members of your team became such firm friends that they regularly socialised outside of work, or even lived together, it’s unlikely that your first response would be to prevent them working the same shifts.

It’s best to judge each case on its merits and to give your employees the benefit of the doubt unless their relationship status would negatively impact their work or put your business at risk.

How do I manage PDA at work?

black and white close up photo of man and woman kissing while holding mugs of coffee

PDA (public displays of affection) are one of the most common, not to mention awkward, issues that managers have to deal with when their staff strike up relationships.

No one wants to be the Cuddle Police, stepping in between your staff with a ruler like a nun at a school disco. But equally no one wants to walk into the break room to discover Debra from accounting seductively feeding her boyfriend grapes.

It’s important to make clear to your entire team that there’s a limit to what is considered an acceptable amount of physical interaction in the workplace.

Even if you’d prefer not to dwell on the subject of workplace romances in your employee handbook, having clear guidelines about PDA in place will make dealing with any excessively handsy couples much easier.

But what if two of your employees simply cannot keep their hands off each other, despite the fact that your employee handbook is clear about remaining professional at work?

The simplest solution is to quietly sit them down, either as a pair or individually, to ask them to turn the heat down while they’re on the clock.

Be sure to outline the behaviour that you’ve witnessed or that has been reported to you, then remind the pair that, ultimately, they’re expected to conduct themselves professionally while at work.

Most employees will be embarrassed by the very fact that their relationship is being talked about by their manager, so it’s not usually necessary to issue any kind of formal warning unless their behaviour has been especially inappropriate.

Those who persist, however, may need to be dealt with more firmly, for instance by moving them to different departments or adjusting their shift patterns. In such situations, it’s important to clearly explain — and document — the reasons for the action being taken so that neither party feels that they're being treated unfairly.

wooden 'stop' sign against a background of rolling green hills

What if you want to “go nuclear” and avoid these issues entirely by completely outlawing workplace relationships? Can a company or manager even do that?

In some parts of the US, it's entirely legal for businesses to prohibit employees from entering into relationships with each other, with many stating as much in their codes of conduct.

Others take a slightly less draconian approach by requiring employees to declare their relationships within three months, at which point any risk to the company will be assessed and action taken if deemed necessary.

Here in the UK, however, the prohibition of workplace relationships is more of a grey area.

With a bit of legal knowhow, it is technically possible for a company to identify entering into an intimate relationship with a fellow employee as an act of misconduct. In practice, however, an employer attempting to enforce a blanket ban on their staff getting together in their private time would be fraught with legal complications.

Banning Cupid from the workplace may seem like the simpler (if slightly cold-hearted!) solution on paper, but doing so may create even more work in the long-run.

If you’re particularly worried about the negative impact a workplace relationship might have on your business, then it might be easier to concentrate on drawing up a comprehensive code of conduct that applies to all staff, regardless of their relationship status.

Can I ask staff to sign love contracts?

close up photo of man holding a metallic pen above three documents

The thinking behind these written disclosures is that companies can avoid being caught up in potential sexual harassment claims by knowing that their staff have entered into a consenting relationship. They're currently more common in the US than elsewhere in the world, but with UK businesses now required by law to take "all reasonable steps" to prevent sexual harassment at work, chances are they'll become standard practice here before too long.

While these additional measures are without doubt a good thing, and employers have a duty of care to protect their staff, these so-called love contracts are not without their issues.

As well as being tricky to enforce, relationship disclosure forms can be full of legal loopholes. How, for instance, do you define a "relationship"? Do staff have to be married or in a civil partnership for it to count, or would regularly seeing one another outside work suffice? Business owners should proceed with caution when preparing documentation of this kind, and clearly define what they mean by terms like "relationship".

Also bear in mind that relationship disclosure forms are not especially useful when it comes to settling legal disputes as, whether or not the company knew beforehand that two people were dating, an unwanted sexual advance would still constitute sexual harassment, and management would still be required to respond appropriately.

In short, it’s a good idea to encourage your staff to make you aware if they’re seeing a fellow employee so that conflicts of interest can be avoided, but bear in mind that making it policy for two (or more!) employees to present signed documentation stating that they're now an item could be considered by some to be an infringement of privacy in and of itself.

What should I do if two of my staff break up?

Little red paper robot holding a torn paper heart

It’s easy to trivialise other people’s breakups, especially if their relationship stemmed from a mutual love of warm photocopies or a preference for custard creams over hobnobs.

But if a workplace relationship suddenly turns sour, then the potential impact on your business can be huge.

Messy breakups between staff can result in people refusing to speak to one another at work, staff feeling ostracised as their teammates take sides, and even individuals handing in their notice out of not wanting to be around the person who broke their heart.

You might need to do some damage control.

Although it’s important to be aware of any ongoing issues in a member of your team’s personal life that may affect their work, conflicts between former lovers should be handled the same way as any other workplace dispute.

It doesn’t matter if Sarah hates Chris because he’s a love rat, or if Jeremy detests Sadie because of her hardline political views; whatever their differences, employers expect their staff to cooperate and behave civilly while they’re at work.

Work with your (former) couple, separately if need be, to help find a workaround. Put them on separate shifts if necessary, or relocate one of them if they’re willing to move. But also impress upon them the importance of them cooperating at work should their paths cross, and foster an environment that supports that.

Be patient. Offer them a shoulder to cry on. But make sure that both parties — and those they work with — know what’s required of them once they clock in for their shift.

Final thoughts

It’s only natural for employers to wince at the thought of members of their team becoming romantically entwined. After all, when staff are more interested in each other than your customers, it doesn’t bode well for business.

But we can’t prevent love from blossoming in the workplace any more than we can prevent friendships forming, so forbidding one while encouraging the other is both unrealistic and likely to demotivate staff, who will view their employer as being overly controlling and unfeeling.

Tread with caution when love is in the air at your workplace, but be prepared to remain hands-off unless said romance threatens to create problems for your business.

Who knows, maybe as well as changing the world with the products and services you offer, your business could one day make two of its employees' lives happy ever after?