You want your employees to get along, but what about when they really get along? Personal relationships at work create issues for HR departments everywhere. Whether it’s friendships or romantic entanglements, the interactions between employees can affect their productivity and the company dynamic as a whole. It’s important to realize and acknowledge how workplace relationships can affect employees and their performances, either positively or negatively.

Traditionally, any type of workplace relationship — romantic or platonic — has been frowned upon for several reasons.

  • Relationships complicate decision-making. Friends tend to put each other’s needs before the company’s, complicating the way they make decisions.
  • Relationships are distracting. When you’re friends with someone in the office, you may stop by to chat multiple times a day or take long lunches with them. These interruptions are distracting and can be detrimental to productivity.
  • Relationships lead to gossip. People love to talk about their coworkers, and romance is prime fodder for the rumor mill. And friends talk about everything. In the workplace, this can lead to gossip about other coworkers, projects, or clients, in which private company information may be divulged.

But experts have recently found that workplace friendships can actually be good for employees, and therefore for companies. And in fact, trying to fight this tendency might turn out to be counter-productive and detrimental to workers’ well-being. The line between work and home life is thinner and more permeable than ever, with more people working longer hours. In many cases, work is their only social scenario. A recent report found that 36 percent of adults met at least one of their closest friends at work.

Friendships at work can also lead to increased productivity and decreased employee turnover. Employees are happier when they have friends at work. It’s easier to get through the day, and they’re more likely to keep working at the same place. In fact, a 2013 Australian survey found that having a “good relationship with coworkers” was the main reason (67%) for people staying at their current job, above “job satisfaction” (63%), and, perhaps more surprisingly, much higher than salary (46%).

Furthermore, companies that embrace workplace friendships as part of their culture can have a hiring advantage. They can attract candidates who are looking for that kind of closeness among staff members. Plus, teamwork can benefit from friendships within the team, since friends tend to care about helping each other beyond their regular tasks and roles.

Although it’s much trickier, the case of workplace romance can be viewed in a similar way. Like friendships, romances often bloom in the office simply because we spend so much time there. According to CareerBuilder’s 2012 annual office romance survey, 38 percent of respondents dated a coworker, and one-third of them ended up married! These numbers are hard to ignore, and as much as employers may dislike or disagree with office romances, there’s not much they can do to avoid them.

What they can do is make sure that all employees are familiar with the company’s stance on workplace relationships, and that managers know how to address it. A few ways to do this are the following:

  • Provide training. Consider offering training courses for managers and supervisors that focus on how to address romantic relationships between their employees. The key here is to make sure that managers know how to discreetly monitor the relationship, so they can quickly become aware of behaviors that are affecting workplace productivity, and mitigate possible gossip or backlash from other employees. The better-prepared managers are, the better they will handle the situation when it presents itself.
  • Develop a workplace relationship policy. If your company doesn’t already have one, develop a relationship policy for your workplace. Again, the best way to ensure that office romances don’t interfere with company operations is to keep employees informed. For example, some companies opt to allow dating among employees as long as it’s not between a supervisor and an employee who reports to him or her directly. It’s also important to stress that all employees should act in a professional manner and be discreet if they are in a relationship with a coworker.
  • Address sexual harassment. Sadly, there can also be a thin line between a work romance and possible sexual harassment. An employee behaving in any way that’s inappropriate or unwanted — including persistently asking someone on a date even after being told no—shouldn’t be accepted. Every employee should be well-versed on the company’s sexual harassment policy, know exactly how the company handles such claims and that it has zero tolerance for such behavior.
  • Encourage open communication with the HR department. Finally, it’s a good idea to encourage couples to come forth to the company’s HR department if things get serious. Make sure they know the company’s policy on relationships and be ready to help guide them so that their relationship can grow without interfering with their work.

As our lives become more and more centered on our work, relationships in the workplace are likely to increase. The best thing to do is to be prepared and keep the channels of communication open, so that employees, managers, and HR departments are all on the same page.

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Adina Miron

4 Comments

  • Avatar Mary Schefield says:

    As our lives become more and more tied to our job and we spend 75% of our time at work it’s no wonder that some parts of our life which are supposed to happen outside the office drift into the office. However, if this is the case with you, you should still must remain professional and not bring all the romantic atmosphere into the office – it may distract and annoy your other coworkers a lot.

  • Avatar Beverly says:

    As a manager, I‘m totally against my employees having any kind of relationships apart from friendly or business-like, but as a person I understand when such things happen we just can’t help them. Nevertheless I think even though such relationships are not encouraged within the organization we can’t just prohibit them, instead we should try to develop a clear policy and train our employees to help them stay productive and teach them not to let their relationships ruin their careers.

  • Avatar Lisa says:

    I think it’s beautiful when people of the same organization find their soul mates at work. Yes, I know you’d say I may regret saying this and that romantic relationship may affect cooperation and productivity, but when people who work in the same office develop other level of relationship it may have a positive effect on your company as well. First of all, they know how the things are going at work and would understand late arrivals from work; second of all, they may help each other more willingly. I’ve seen few very successful examples of coworkers turning into families without any bad consequences on the organization.

  • Avatar Larisa Ştefana Mihalache says:

    I think relationships of this kind mustn’t be encouraged, but neither repelled. The basic education usually dictates the behavior one has inside a relationship, especially a romantic one. If the employees manage to remain discreet, although they make their relationship public, I don’t think an interference would occur, regarding the workplace or the productivity. Smart people must be able to maintain a balanced relationship even if their soulmate is a colleague.

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