DIY Management: How to handle office romances

What you need to know to survive a workplace romance, whether it's yours or not

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Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting Inc. in Vancouver, and Ryan Anderson, a partner at the Vancouver office of global HR law firm Mathews Dinsdale & Clark LLP, who also teaches human resources management at SFU and labour relations at Capilano University, discuss how to manage romance in the workplace

1. Accept human nature
People spend so much time at work that it’s inevitable they become friends, Pau notes. “What’s the difference between becoming best friends versus becoming boyfriend and girlfriend?” she asks. Anderson points out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a workplace relationship. “Most of them are harmonious and professional, but some are challenging and some are even disruptive,” he says. “A romantic relationship obviously introduces an element of additional emotion, and with that comes additional risk.”

2. Set boundaries
“You can as an employer create a policy on what expectations are, like not having a superior and a direct report being in a relationship and keeping personal affairs outside of work,” Pau says. Review current policies and to what extent they cover potential workplace relationship issues such as conflict of interest and harassment or bullying, Anderson advises. The policy should prohibit relationships between those in direct reporting situations and include a duty to disclose. Zero tolerance is unwise because it might compel employees to keep the relationship secret.

3. Talk about it
Employees may perceive or have concerns about favouritism, especially if the relationship is between a superior and a subordinate, Anderson warns. “You certainly have to go to them directly,” he says. “You determine the relationship. You identify the potential concerns for conflict.” Pau recommends speaking to the more senior person to ensure whatever is going on in their personal life is kept separate from their business. “Make sure that nobody is being made to feel uncomfortable, that there’s no relations in the workplace,” she adds.

4. Watch for harassment
Check that neither party feels pressured to be in the relationship based on their position or the promise of a promotion or additional benefits, cautions Pau. Anderson explains that harassment consists of comments or conduct that a person should have known is unwelcome and serves no legitimate workplace purpose. “Have a policy in place that prohibits this sort of behaviour, make it easy for employees to raise their concerns through different channels, and demonstrate that those complaints will be investigated and resolved,” he says.

5. Pick up the pieces
“In a workplace relationship that’s not romantic, if you’re having trouble with an individual you might just avoid them, but at the end of a nasty breakup that might be particularly challenging for some individuals,” Anderson observes. “Sometimes they just need a cooling-off period,” Pau says. If the estranged couple can’t work together, it might be possible to move one of them to a different role or department. However, Anderson acknowledges, “in some cases there won’t be any alternative arrangement that can be made, or if one is made it becomes disruptive, and that can lead to the end of employment.”