As Bill and Melinda Gates, or Michelle and Barack Obama can attest sometimes office romances turn out really well. Or, as the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton affair so publicly showcased, in other circumstances things can go horribly wrong. While Bill managed to hang on to his Presidency, the choices they made have undeniably had a long, lasting impact on both of their lives.
The reality is in workplaces everywhere people are involved in personal relationships with colleagues and even their boss. Becoming romantically involved with a colleague isn’t necessarily a problem; but how people go about it can be. It’s wise to understand your rights and obligations before you choose to pursue a personal relationship at work. Being educated can go a long way toward helping you to stay on the right side of your organisations policies and the law.
While there are no laws that specifically govern office romances, sexual harassment legislation is very relevant. Put simply, sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship, which is mutual or consensual.
It’s important to understand that it’s not only how people behave at work that matters. Sexual harassment laws are applicable in the office, at work related events and even between colleagues outside of work. Some types of sexual harassment may also be offences under criminal law and should be reported to the police.
If you’re in a leadership role you especially can’t afford to be naïve to your obligations. Contemplate for a moment if your relationship ends bitterly. Things could get a little, or even a lot, nasty before you know it. It’s an unfortunate reality that some people will use whatever avenue available to them to have their revenge when aggrieved. Don’t give someone the ammunition to unfairly accuse you of sexual harassment when the real nature of your relationship is in fact consensual.
Many organisations have policies in place to protect the business and its employees. Ensuring compliance with sexual harassment laws and protecting confidentiality are common reasons organisations choose to put policies in place around workplace relationships. Some companies actively discourage their employees from getting romantically involved out of fear of collusion and ‘pillow talk’.
It’s neither appropriate nor accepted in most circumstances for someone to report to a person they are romantically involved with. No matter how much you think you both have the maturity to ‘handle it’, the harsh reality is you will need to choose between your job or relationship; or the decision is likely to be made for you. This might means change departments or leaving the business,
Checklist for staying within safe boundaries
The most important things you can do to ensure your office romance has a positive impact on your life is to behave with respect, focus and integrity toward yourself, your colleagues and employer.
Apply this checklist to protect your credibility as being someone with good judgment and sound morals:
- Be careful to accurately read the signals your romantic interest sends about their return interest in you.
- Never assume ‘playing hard to get’ is a signal for you to try harder. That’s definitely the time to back off.
- If you’re just looking for a good time be careful not to leave a trail of broken hearts and trust in your wake.
- Think carefully about what it says about your ability to conduct yourself respectively if you choose to date a lot of different people at work or get involved in an extramarital affair.
Being in a relationship with someone at work
- Never allow your relationship to encroach on company time, disrupt the office environment and stand in the way of your getting your job done.
- Honour the contract you have signed up to and strive to contribute to the standard you are capable of.
- Never get amorous in the office! Public displays of affection and overt flirting are rarely received well.
- Keep personal dramas out of the workplace. No matter how upset you may be, remember most people are unconformable with a couple bickering and arguing at work.
- Be careful not to get so caught up in the excitement of your new relationship that you fail to see how others perceive your behaviour.
Karen Gately, a founder of HR Consultancy Ryan Gately, is a leadership and people-management specialist. Karen works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley) and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people.