How to handle (high-tech) office romance

By November 7, 2017Management & HR, See all
Management & HR See all Office romance

Even in today’s world of swipeable dating apps and matchmaking websites, plenty of people are still finding love at work.

According to Vault’s 2017 Office Romance Survey, just over half have had a workplace romance. While a fair chunk confessed to casual relationships or hookups with colleagues, 16 per cent said they entered a long-term relationship, and 10 per cent said they met their spouse or partner at the office.

And, according to researchers, those dating experiences – from courtship to breakups – are often playing out on office technology.

“Technology is used to both start and end the relationship in many ways, like Googling them or texting,” says Sean Horan, an associate professor of communication at Texas State University.

“What becomes really interesting to this from a technology standpoint is what happens when the technology people are using is workplace-related, like workplace intranet, company email, a company phone.”

It’s more common than employers might think, says Horan, who has published multiple studies on workplace romance. Be it your office Slack channel or company email, you can bet employees are flirting and finding love.

“But if people are using it to hook up or break up, it could be an HR issue,” he says.

So how should you handle office romance – particularly when it’s happening through company technology? According to the experts, there are a few things managers and employees should keep in mind:

Keep an eye on tech use

If your team members all have office smartphones or use inter-office messaging, there’s a strong chance they’re having some romantic communication. Policies therefore need to be put in place to ensure tech use stays appropriate – to avoid unwanted harassment, for instance.

“A company can legislate the type of communication that occurs on their technology,” Horan says.

And workers, he says, need to be smart about their tech use. If you want to have personal activities on your phone, use a personal device.

“That’s a separation of work and life,” he explains.

Require disclosure of office relationships – within reason

Experts agree that workplace relationships to be brought forward to ensure there’s no resentment or conflicts of interest. But it’s a good idea to consider the timing and have policies in place for what should be revealed to human resources or a manager – and when. And, according to Horan, that can be tricky.

“If you have a workplace romance, and you’ve gone out two times and they’ve been respectful dates, do you want to bring that forward?” he says. “If you require it after two dates, you’re forcing people to formalize a relationship while . . . they’re sitting in that ambiguous period.”

And, says Horan, more casual workplace romances can be even more challenging to address. “Does a one-night stand at work have to be brought forward? What about someone’s dignity and privacy?”

Whatever a company decides, they should put it in writing with a formal workplace romance policy.

“We know that people typically react better from a personal disclosure of a workplace romance,” says Horan, “versus if they hear it through gossip or catching you in the act, be it hanging out together or making out in the parking garage.”

Don’t ban office romance altogether

“There are clear legal reasons why employers and professional organizations enforce strict guidelines on relationships in the military, between doctors and patients, teachers and pupils, therapists and clients,” explains researcher Fiona Wilson, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Glasgow. “However, the consensus appears to be that a complete ban is in all organizations is unworkable.”

As an alternative, some employers have developed “consensual office relationship policies,” according to Charles A. Pierce, an associate professor of management in the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at the University of Memphis. While the policies totally allow consensual romances, they do stipulate boundaries and provide processes for co-workers to complain or express concerns, he says.

Horan agrees that a total ban just doesn’t make sense. Nor should employees be expected to avoid falling in love at the water cooler – or through the office group chat.

“People are spending less and less time engaged in leisure activities, and more time at work,” he says.

“The workplace has almost become a de facto place to meet people.”

See also:
Understanding inter-office blind dates (hint: there’s no romance involved)

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