The pitfalls of workplace relationships and how to avoid them

Jun 22, 2015 | Business Principles

In most businesses there is or has been a situation where two colleagues are in a personal relationship. Although this is incredibly common, there are a number of possible pitfalls for your business. Understanding what these are and considering how you will manage them will help you minimise the impact of personal relationships on your business.

What are the pitfalls?

Most relationships break up eventually and not all amicably. It is not uncommon for parties who used to be in a relationship to end up in a situation where one is alleging sexual harassment against the other. Even if it doesn’t get to that stage, it can be enormously difficult working with someone you’ve had a bad break-up with.

If either party is married or in a long-term relationship outside work, the potential for the workplace relationship to result in personal difficulties impacting on work is higher.

Where one party is a manager and the other a junior, there can be accusations of (or actual) bias and favouritism from other team members, and a risk of confidential management information being disclosed.

Workplace relationships usually result in gossip which can be an enormous source of wasted time and distraction. This is inevitable but increased where relationships are banned or there is a culture of hiding them.

Displays of affection/lack of discretion about the relationship can cause resentment amongst other staff.

So what can you do to minimise the impact of these pitfalls on your business?

1. Accept it will happen

Statistics vary but it is estimated that perhaps a quarter of employees meet a long-term partner at work. Once you look at how many people have had a personal relationship of any length with a colleague, the figure rises to anywhere between 50% and 70%. At some point in your business it will happen that two colleagues become involved with each other on a personal level. Often in smaller businesses there is more socialising together which can make it even more likely. Any business where staff spend time together out of hours increases the likelihood.

2. Don’t attempt to ban it

Placing a blanket ban on personal relationships between colleagues is unrealistic. All that will achieve is a culture of secrecy and gossip, it won’t stop people getting involved with each other. And what would you do if the ban were broken? A dismissal for having a personal relationship likely to be unfair and possibly discriminatory, and a disciplinary warning is unlikely to achieve anything constructive.

3. Remember that employees have a right to a private life

As a rule, you shouldn’t interfere in employees’ private lives, only when their relationships have a negative impact on work, or have the potential to.

4. Consider manager/subordinate relationships carefully

Some organisations mandate that employees in personal relationships cannot be in the same department or report to each other, although this is only manageable in larger organisations and would need to be handled carefully to avoid accusations of unfairness.

In a small business it’s more realistic to consider how the personal relationship might impact negatively and find ways to minimise that. Things to consider include performance management/appraisal, salary decisions and discipline/grievance issues. You may want to see if it’s possible to identify another manager to become involved in these types of situations.

5. Consider guidance on relationships with clients/customers/suppliers

Relationships with external related parties can seem less problematic; there are not the day-to-day issues and the potential fall-out of a break-up seems likely to be less. However relationships with clients/customers/suppliers or similar have their own challenges.

If your employee is involved in a relationship with a supplier and they have decision-making responsibilities with regards to that supplier, there is a conflict of interests there. Think about how relationships with external involved parties could impact on your business and consider what guidance you could put in place to minimise concerns.

6. Be clear about expectations

If you are told, or become aware, that two colleagues are in a relationship, it is probably worth having a discussion with them. Be clear that you are not interfering in their personal lives however you would like to work with them to identify any potential concerns and avoid these. Sensible employees will understand that workplace relationships can be problematic and will be keen to reassure you as to their behaviour, and open to ideas on how to minimise the impact.

Where employees are perhaps less sensible, making clear that you do not expect any negative impact on performance and/or conduct at work, or any negative impact for colleagues, and that performance/conduct problems will be dealt with in the same way as usual, i.e. with performance management/disciplinary action where appropriate.

7. Consider how to manage the aftermath

Make sure you have suitable and up to date grievance and bullying/harassment policies in place. If there are any allegations of sexual harassment, the fact that the parties involved were previously in a relationship should make no difference to how you handle it. Sexual harassment of anyone is a serious matter, whether they are an ex-partner or just a colleague.

Be aware that if one party to a relationship is more junior, they may feel vulnerable. They may feel that they are more likely to be punished in some way for having had a relationship with a colleague – forced out of their job, moved into another department against their will, or treated less favourably in other ways. If there is an allegation of harassment they may worry that they will not be believed.

For more advice or assistance, please get in touch.