How to Handle Office Romance as a Manager

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January 05, 2021

Hello! You discovered our guide on how to handle office romance as a manager.

Office romances are when two or more employees engage in a romantic relationship. For example, the employees could go on a casual date, commit to a long term relationship, or get married. These romances are a reality of many workplaces, and should be something to celebrate.

This article covers:

  • office romance rules
  • guidelines regarding office romances
  • romantic relationships in the workplace policies
  • effects of office romance
  • workplace dating etiquette

Plus more best practices.

Here is everything a supervisor needs to know about workplace romances.

8 Tips for Handling Office Romance as a Manager

1. Lay out rules before you need them

The optimal approach to office romances is to outline rules early so that all parties have clear expectations.

Here are some sample guidelines regarding office romances:

  • Employees must report all interoffice relationships to human resources.
  • Supervisors and subordinates cannot date each other.
  • No physical public displays of affection, defined as any physical act beyond hugging or holding hands, on company property.
  • No trading of romantic favors, including but not limited to dates, physical acts, or relationships, in exchange for organizational services, goods, or advantages.
  • Interactions between romantically involved employees are subject to review by a neutral third party, such as the human resources department.
  • Staff members may only ask out a coworker once. If the answer is no, then romantic pursuit must end immediately.

To eliminate ambiguity, be specific in terms and definitions. For example, if you discourage physical affection on company property, clarify whether this rule extends to offsite functions such as happy hours.

If your definition of “interoffice romance” includes clients as well as coworkers, be sure to mention this fact in clear language. Laying out terms and asking employees to review and accept them upfront prevents potentially unpleasant surprises down the road.

2. Consult your HR department on best practices

Many organizations have pre-existing romantic relationships in the workplace policies. As a manager, it is important that you are aware of any such policies, and communicate these terms to your teammates.

Even if your company does not have hard and fast rules for coworker romance, the human resources department can help you navigate the complexities of the situation. For instance, HR staff can explain what behaviors constitute sexual harassment, and help you avoid accusations of discrimination against non-traditional relationships. HR also helps set a standard for appropriate workplace behavior for all parties. For example, by designating off-limits conversation topics, drawing up relevant documents, and advising on the creation of rules or boundaries.

3. Set boundaries between the couple, coworker, and managers

The term “workplace relationships” does not refer exclusively to romantic situations. Many types of relationships exist in the office, including those between the lovers, coworkers, and supervisors. When one type of relationship changes in the workplace, others typically have to adjust too.

Laying down boundaries protects all parties. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable. Your instinct may be to avoid all discussion of the relationship entirely. However, this approach may strain relations, especially if you had previously discussed your colleague’s dating life. Placing a taboo on the topic suggests shame and may cause unnecessary awkwardness. It is better to welcome the mention of date nights or occasionally ask about weekend plans. Your coworker should be able to talk about this relationship like any other.

However, avoid prying or pressing for extra information. As a rule, you should not discuss intimate relationship details in the workplace anyway, regardless of whether or not you know your colleague’s partner, as such subjects are often not work-appropriate. Be sure that every member of your team understands which topics are off-limits or acceptable. Comfort levels may vary depending on the couple.

Boundaries work both ways. One partner may occasionally joke or vent about the other in a manner that makes other coworkers uncomfortable or results in teammates “taking sides.” Discuss the possibility upfront so that team members know to differentiate and separate personal conflicts from work conflicts.

Establishing boundaries and discussing workplace dating etiquette conversation before issues arise keeps interactions easy and agreeable.

4. Give the relationship room and trust the lovebirds

Autonomy is a crucial component in the workplace. Folks want to feel capable and in control both of job responsibilities and their lives beyond the office. One of the trickiest aspects of interoffice romance is the fact that it blurs the room between work-life balance. While you do not want to overstep and tell employees how to live their personal lives, professional standards are still necessary. Occasionally, you may need to interfere in employees’ personal matters if their love lives affect their work lives.

Trusting your staff is important too though. The best approach is to lay out rules, ensure your teammate understands expectations, then step back and exhibit faith in your employees. While you can check in from time to time and let your employees know they can approach you with questions or concerns, resist the urge to babysit the couple in question. Expect that the relationship will proceed professionally, and take countermeasures only if complications arise.

5. Treat employees with equal respect and consideration

As with any rule, universal enforcement is important. Be aware that the standards and expectations you set for workplace relationships apply to all employees. The same principle goes for your attitudes and treatment toward the romance.

You cannot make exceptions to the workplace dating policy because Miriam and Hassan’s have a fun story, while Trevor and Lupita merely met at a team happy hour. Similarly, if workers’ spouses are not invited or allowed at the company retreat, the C-suite should not show up with their significant others.

If you have formal rules, then ensure to enforce regulations equally and consistently. Even if your company’s rules towards peer dating are lax or non-existent, be mindful of your treatment of employee couples and try not to show preference for one pair more than another.

6. Refrain from dating your subordinates or managers

As a manager, you set a precedent for employees to follow. Being a positive role model is key, and so avoiding the company dating pool altogether is a good idea. However, you should never date a direct subordinate or supervisor. Most companies prohibit these relationships, and the business world tends to consider romantic involvement with a boss or reporting employee as highly unprofessional. Dating across organizational levels causes issues ranging from strained interdepartmental relationships to sexual harassment suits.

“Skipping a rung,” can be equally problematic. Dating your boss’s boss or your employee’s report can disrupt the chain of command, betray trust, and cause discomfort no matter how impartial and professional you vow to remain.

Initiating a romantic relationship with a lower-level employee in a distant area of the organization is more of a gray area, but still requires extreme caution. Power imbalances can lead to unintended breaches of consent or professional pressure. In most cases, experts agree that it is better not to chance it.

If you do find yourself developing feelings for a subordinate, then you should have a frank discussion with your potential partner, weigh whether the risk to your careers is worth it, and brainstorm corrective measures. For example, you could consider transferring yourself, never the lower level employee, to a different department to comply with company policy. Whatever you do, never start an illicit affair or hide a relationship from your colleagues for the sake of skirting the rules.

7. Take action in the case of unwanted attention

The MeToo movement shed light on the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment. The work environment should be a safe place for all workers, and nobody should feel harassed or pressured into an unwanted romantic encounter. This sentiment applies not only to physical relations or fully-developed relationships, but also flirtatious advances, comments and conversations, and any romantic attention, serious or joking.

Some companies adopt policies that employees can only ask out a coworker once, and must immediately stop pursuit if the answer is “no.” Badgering a colleague to go out on a date is unacceptable behavior that erodes trust and psychological safety in the workplace. Romantic harassment is no laughing matter, and companies should treat the matter with the seriousness and respect the situation demands.

Even when these rules exist, speaking up against harassment can be intimidating. Many workers fear retaliation or consequences to their own careers, or may experience guilt over the possibility of getting a coworker in trouble. Letting teammates know you have their backs is critical. Speak up when you witness a potentially uncomfortable or non-consensual encounter, either by interfering directly or speaking to the affected colleague in private afterwards.

Also, be vocal about the fact that your teammates can always come to you for support and guidance. Work to win your teammates’ trust and instill confidence. Advertise yourself as an ally so that coworkers know they can approach you for help if an unfortunate situation should ever arise.

8. Create a contingency plan

When colleagues date, you should hope for the best and prepare for the worst. As much as you wish the couple happiness and success, sometimes love does not last. Though workplace romance does not always end in tragedy, the effects of office romance can be disastrous or demoralizing if not anticipated or properly addressed. While some relationships end amiably, others conclude in romantic conflict that turns into work conflict.

Messy breakups can make it hard to continue collaborating at work, often compelling one ex to leave the company. Of course, resigning is not the only option. Transferring to another project, department, or organizational location might give the former partners the distance needed to thrive. When separating is not a possibility, a mediator can help the pair transition from being a couple into being just coworkers again.

Note that demanding one party switch departments upon ending the relationship is an extreme move, and one that is likely to encourage employees to hide romantic relationships. Instead of drafting regulations, create resources and flexible options employees can use if needed.

Anticipating what to do should the romantic relationship deteriorate is usually a good plan. Having a backup plan may prevent you from permanently losing a valued teammate due to a temporarily painful situation. Creating a contingency plan is a solid employee retention strategy. If you present the exes with options, then you might be able to find an agreeable alternative before one partner resorts to job-searching.

Learn more about employee retention strategies.

Final Thoughts

Workplace romance can be tricky. However, with proper understanding and preparation, you can enforce an environment of professionalism. In this environment, every employee feels safe and supported no matter their romantic choices or the romantic choices of colleagues.

Feelings and emotions can be fraught, and it can be intimidating enough to navigate the world of love without having to get involved in relationships of colleagues. Remember that you are not alone. You can always reach out to your supervisors, other managers, and the human resources department for ideas of appropriate behavior.

Next, check out our article on managing remote teams and this list of management books.

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Author: Angela Robinson

Team building content expert. Angela has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and worked as a community manager with Yelp to plan events for businesses.

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