Love at work: what’s the right HR response?

Love at work: what’s the right HR response?

We spend a third of our adult lives at work, so it’s natural that many people meet potential partners there. According to jobs website,, 59% of surveyed employees in the US have engaged in a workplace romance. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Bill Gates and Barack Obama met their respective wives at work, but where do you draw the line and how does HR manage any sticky situations?

And these situations certainly come up – HP’s ex-CEO, Mark Hurd was fired from his position after an inappropriate relationship with a contractor.

Skip the ban

Workplace code of conduct policies are nothing new but some companies have taken a step further to include rules that prevent employee-employee and manager-subordinate relationships. However banning relationships outright can be difficult to implement. many employers we spoke to said that they do not have problems with their employees having relationships as long as it does not interfere with their work productivity.

“We don’t mind our staff having consensual relationships, as long as supervisors don’t date their subordinates, and staff members behave in a professional manner”, said the HR manager of an Ontario media company.   

Providing the right touch

Other measures, such as setting some guidelines and providing counselling, can be employed to ensure that workplace romances between colleagues do not get out of hand and do not cause awkwardness to those around them. The Royal Bank of Scotland has a code of conduct that states personal relationships are acceptable as long it does not lead to a conflict of interest, and encourages its employees to inform their managers should such a situation arise.

This is especially important if relationships occur between a manager and his or her subordinate. A likely scenario is that other employees could feel or think that the employee who is involved with the manager might be receiving perks and at an advantage compared to them. In order to avoid conflicts of interest, guidelines are a good starting point.

Some tips for handling the latest romance:

Accept it

There’s not a lot you can do about two people falling for each other so deal with the situation as it is. Trying to prevent or end a relationship between staff is only going to alienate your workers.

Talk about it

It’s unlikely to remain a secret so try to establish an environment where the couple can talk about their relationship without feeling pressured to be subtle or secretive.

Set limits

All it should take is a brief conversation with each party: “Hi Jordan, I hope everything’s going well with you and Tom. Can I just ask you to keep the PDA  to a minimum around the office? I just want to make sure everyone in the office is comfortable.”

Don’t snoop or gossip

Workers have the right to their privacy, so if they choose not to tell you, it’s not your place to ask what’s going on. Give them opportunities to speak to you, but don’t force the issue.

Be flexible

Many offices have guidelines about couples working together, or dating subordinates. While these guides often have the right intentions, every situation is different so rather than one rule for all, talk to the couple in question about what will work for them.

Set expectations if it ends

The end is likely to be messier than the beginning, so be prepared. Set high expectations for behaviour at work. “I’m sorry you have this added stress, it must be very difficult, but I hope you understand that we can’t have that come into the office. I need you to leave that at the door and find a way to work with Jordan when necessary.”



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