How to Handle Office Romance

Eric Stutzman

[Excerpt from The Culture Question]

If you have worked in an organization with more than a few people for long enough, you may have witnessed an office romance – or maybe you’ve been part of one yourself. Statistics vary, but a quick web search pulls up multiple sources suggesting that approximately 40 percent of workers have dated a coworker at some point in their career – and a good number of those relationships have resulted in marriage.7 That’s a lot of people romancing at the office! So, is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Romance feels great to the people who are falling in love. It tends to make them happier, healthier, and more motivated to be at work. However, it often creates distraction from work tasks – especially in the beginning stages of the relationship or if it turns sour.

Things get much trickier when the relationship involves a supervisor and their subordinate. Coworkers sometimes perceive a conflict of interest in that the subordinate may gain an unfair level of influence. After all, how can a manager provide anything like an objective performance evaluation for an employee they are romantically involved with?

Prohibition generally backfires by driving relationships underground and making them harder to understand, respond to, and manage appropriately.

When workplace romances turn sour, the fallout often affects others in the workplace. Colleagues may be asked to take sides, creating cliques around the estranged partners. At best, people must put energy toward avoiding offence or awkward situations. This often results in extra time and effort to keep the two people apart, such as not having meetings where the two will be present or assigning tasks so as to not have the former couple placed on the same team.

In reality, asking whether office romance is a good thing or a bad thing isn’t the right question. Given the shockingly high prevalence of workplace romance, we are better off asking ourselves, “Are we prepared for office romance when it happens?”

The impact of workplace romance varies greatly depending on who is involved, whether they work together directly, and how big the organization is as a whole. In small organizations, it may not be possible to put distance between a romancing pair, while large organizations may be able to move people or change lines of accountability. Given the differences among workplaces, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense.

At ACHIEVE, we believe that prohibition generally backfires by driving relationships underground and making them harder to understand, respond to, and manage appropriately. Instead of prohibiting romantic relationships, we have a policy for responding to office romance, which includes what we will do if a relationship develops between a supervisor and their subordinate.

Here are some tips for how to prepare for the inevitability of an office romance:

  • Plan your response. Have a discussion as a management team about how to best manage office romance. Be sure to record the results of this discussion in a written document. We recommend consulting with staff for their input and feedback as you draft a policy. Ensure that this information is included in your employee orientation process.
  • Be clear about supervisor–supervisee romance. Make sure your policy addresses how the organization will respond if a supervisor forms a relationship with an employee who they supervise. In most cases, it may be best to discourage these types of relationships, as they are fraught with the potential for negative impacts on the workplace whether they go well for the couple or not.
  • Speak with those in the relationship. When a relationship does happen, have both parties sign a consensual relationship agreement. Encourage those involved to keep personal issues outside of work, just as all staff are expected to. Let them know that personal relationships should not impact work performance and that poor performance will always be taken seriously.

When it comes to office romance, the best approach is to prepare for the inevitable, encourage transparency, and discourage romantic relationships between supervisors and those they supervise.


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Authors: Randy Grieser, Eric Stutzman, Wendy Loewen, and Michael Labun.

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work.

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