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When cupid came to work – the ramifications of workplace relationships

6 minute read

line of paper hearts

Love… Love… Oh, love… Such a beautiful thing. Some say that love is eternal. Some say that love is blind. Some say that love has no boundaries… But we all know, the more sensible of us at least, that it’s not quite as simple as all that. The pursuit of love is rarely easy, fairy-tale romances are illusive and sometimes, despite our best intentions, love finds us when we least expect it, like in the workplace.

This delve into the delights of desire between desks will explore the issues that can arise when that lingering gaze over the coffee machine becomes something more.

“Can anybody find me somebody to love?” Queen, Somebody to love

Sit back and let your old uncle Ollie tell you a story about a different time, a magical time, a time before ‘Swipes’ and ‘likes’, a time when, instead of using the medium of internet dating sites, people used the medium of actual real world conversations to communicate with a potential mate. It was really a time of wonders. 

All of those people that ‘got together’ had cute little stories about being sweethearts at school, or met through friends of friends or even, they met at work. 

But now, with the surge in popularity of dating services such as Bumble or Tinder, there has been a subtle but significant change in dating habits and with it, expectations. No longer is the expectation that people meet one another in close or common social orbits, now people have the opportunity to meet a complete stranger based on the quality of a handful of pictures and two lines of misspelled mutterings interspersed with incongruent emoji ☂️… And they say romance is dead…

So, in some ways, we are expected to explore other avenues of romance, but what if, despite the distinct chance of going to meet a 23 year old blonde called Susan and them turning out to be a 53 year old trucker with a beard you could lose a lawnmower in… Called Susan, you find love right there, beside the photocopier? How will you navigate this ship of love through the cruel reefs of rumours, the squalls of scorn and the leviathans of legal and career sinking consequences? 

Cap’in Ollie is here to plot you the course… (though if we were being accurate this job would have been done by a navigator and not a captain).

“Love in an elevator” Aerosmith, Love in an Elevator

My first piece of advice is, well, don’t bother, look elsewhere, and if you can’t find anyone, look again, though maybe squint a little. Though a study in 2006 from the Society for Human Resource Management suggested that almost 40% of office workers had experienced some sort of workplace romance, the office is a closed environment and such unprofessional behaviour can quickly get out of hand and, in some cases, lead to accusations of sexual harassment. 

Keeping a healthy balance between your work life and love life is important. If things break down when mixing the two, the consequences can be more than a broken heart, it could be a ruined career.

Okay… So, you’ve been warned. It’s a really bad idea to get involved with a co-worker… But of course, it does happen. So, how should you in this tiny office deal with this blooming flower of passion?

“I’d give it all up for you” Simply Red, Something got me Started

What would you be willing to give up for this relationship? Some businesses have terms in their contracts that prohibit the involvement of co-workers and, if there is sufficient evidence that this clause has been broken, your contract, and your new sweethearts can be void leaving you without any recourse… In other words, you’ll be out on your ear.

Ironically, such fears, instead of dissuading romances from continuing, can merely force them underground into a shady world of secrets and clandestine engagements, so before you buy that trench coat and fedora hat, check your contract. If such relationships are defined as a cause for dismissal, you’re going to have to have a talk with your adoring accomplice and weigh up what is more important. If the relationship is going somewhere, maybe it is time to look for another job… If the job is going well, well, maybe it’s time to look for another adoring accomplice outside the office.

Of course, your contract may have no such terms buried in those mazes of legal jargon, in which case you need to be professional and own up. 

“Everybody knows!” Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

Though it might be fun stealing a kiss in the broom cupboard and coming up with elaborate stories about what you did last night “Because I was definitely not at her house doing shadow puppets on the bedroom wall” (He says in a shout), it isn’t worth the risk. When you get found out, and you will get found out, this will only serve to make other workers feel betrayed for having been lied to or feeling foolish for being duped about your highly detailed story about descaling your kettle “Completely alone” (He shouts again). 

Not only is it professional to inform your boss, but it is a courtesy and gives you a chance to explain that it won’t interfere with work. 

“…Cause I knew you were trouble when you walked in” Tailor Swift, Trouble

It is often difficult to see beyond the pink fog of romance and into the future but it’s a sad fact that not all relationships work. Breakups can be hard, and they can be ugly, but when they are in a small work environment it isn’t just your pride at stake, it can be your social circle or even your career.

Beyond the awkwardness of having a former lover working approximately eight inches away from your left elbow, other considerations must be made. What if, in a bid to patch up their own virtue and career opportunities, there is an allegation of sexual harassment? What if you feel that you were coerced into a relationship you didn’t want and now need to fire fight?

These are yet more reasons to look outside the work environment for a relationship, but no one likes someone to say “I told you so”. Instead, the first step is to try and resolve the situation through management, express your concerns and any possible solutions, for example, change sites if you can, or offices if possible. Whatever you do, do not confront the ex in the middle of the office for, though this might be a welcome distraction to your nosier colleagues, it will hardly put you in management’s good books.

So, I’ve suggested ways of dealing with a relationship that might fail, I’ve given you dire warnings of the consequences of office love for you and the people around you, but what about the legal implications of such situations? 

“Love is the law” The Seahorses, Love is the Law

Though it is rare, employers can have a policy against workplace relationships. Though such things might seem downright prehistoric, the goal is to, you know, keep the business in business. In a competitive market, it is less than ideal to have to deal with in fighting, jealousy, factions, sexual harassment claims and being unable to get into the broom cupboard. This is especially true when relationships begin between a superior and a subordinate that can lead to claims of favouritism or if the relationship goes sour, bullying. 

Larger organisations may have other options aside from dismissal such as relocating one of the former couple to another department but, in the case of SMEs, this is unlikely to be feasible.

So, what are your rights if you are asked to leave due to a work place relationship? Well, it is important to establish whether your employer had this policy in your contract, you know, that thick wad of paper that, instead of going to celebrate clinching a new job, you sat down and read in its brain numbing entirety. 

If you feel that the dismissal is unfair and you have sufficient employment for two years or more, it is possible to make a claim of unfair dismissal. This would be done through an employment tribunal.

Furthermore, if only one of the couple is being ‘forced out’, there may be grounds for a claim of discrimination because, of course, men and women should be treated equally. In the case of same sex relationships, your employer cannot treat your relationship any different based on your sexual orientation so, if a same-sex couple is asked to leave whilst a heterosexual couple in the same situation are not, it may again be a case of discrimination.

Finally, it may be that there are grounds for a harassment claim against your employer if you feel you are being unfairly penalised for a supposed infringement that you were not made aware of, for example, if the policy forbidding workplace relationships was not forthcoming in either your contract or the company’s literature.

(Note: This does not constitute legal advice and if you do happen to get embroiled in such a sticky situation you should seek out a professional.)

“What this means for SMEs” Oliver Kennett, The SME Bop

Of course, all of these things are easier said than done when it is an SME composed of three people and a Jack Russell called Robert. Though all of these points are still valid, they become far harder. It’s somewhat comforting to think of yourself as the little guy/gal vs the faceless monsters in their ivory castle who rule over all with an iron fist and a heart of flint… But when it comes to legal action against Garry who you’ve known since you caught him eating worms behind play-school, then things get weird.

Conclusion

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher once wrote “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”. Though presumably in French. The point is we can be as practical as we like, say we will not brook any desires in the workplace, reason that we need to be professional to achieve our career goals though, when it comes to matters of the heart, all of this goes straight out of the window because love is not practical and it’s not reasonable. All we can do is plot the best course we can to avoid damaging our delicate and beautiful craft, be understanding and open with others, respect the work environment and the people within it and maybe, just maybe, everything will be fine!

Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.

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