Office romance

Maybe it is wiser to steer away from any grey areas and forbid any form of romantic relationships? Alternatively, maybe the best approach is to decide on a case-by-case basis and to discourage ‘office romance’ rather than forbidding it?


By Kevin-James Fenech

Kevin is the founder and owner of JOB Search -

Perhaps, I am touching on a taboo subject but I really think we need to put the spot-light on this ‘hot topic’ (excuse the pun).

Just this month, the global fast food chain McDonald’s fired its CEO- Steve Easterbrook- because he engaged in a ‘consensual relationship’ with an employee. This according to McDonalds ‘violated company policy’ and displayed ‘poor judgement’ by the CEO. In addition, the Head of HR followed the CEO and ‘left’ the company. I find this thought-provoking to say the least. What a story!

According to Vault’s 2017 Office Romance Survey, 57% of individuals in the UK admitted to having had a romantic relationship at work yet nearly 50% of companies have a formal or written policy which regulates and in most cases forbids it.

In the case of McDonalds, the reason for the company’s decision is because the relationship materially broke the company’s employee code which states that “…employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship.” Therefore, it was deemed that the CEO was guilty of misconduct and his behaviour created an actual or potential ‘conflict of interest’.

Without going into the actual merits of this specific case, I think this story is highly relevant to local employers. Where do you stand on the issue (for or against)? Where do you draw the line? Or is it safer to simply have a zero tolerance policy? Yet how much power should the employer have over the private lives of its employees?

Recently, Jessa Crispin of The Guardian penned an excellent article entitled: ‘We might soon be forbidden from falling in love at work. Do we want that?’. She points out how more than ‘…80% of people report meeting a romantic partner through work…it would be a better use of a company’s time to address the real cases of harassment in their workplaces rather than hope it all goes away with a strict ban on ‘fraternization’. After all, how much power over our private lives do we want to give to our employers?’

I think the issue is clear for high ranking company officials or senior managers; they simply should not get involved with anyone especially if such co-workers report to them.

Yet the issue becomes less clear cut when it concerns employees who work for the same company but do not report to each other and not part of the same department or even more obscure when the romantic entanglement is with a supplier or a client.

I know that the trend is for most companies to introduce ‘Business Ethics’ policies and when doing so to err on the side of caution and impose an outright ban on ‘office romance’ of any sort. If I were an employer, or advising an employer, I’d probably do the same since ultimately there are too many risks, potential pitfalls and/or complications when an element of toleration is contemplated. I can quite easily see an ‘office romance’ turn sour with one of the parties seeking revenge and turning it nto a ‘sexual harassment’ case. It simply isn’t worth the hassle for a company to adopt a liberal approach since the collateral damage is too huge. Correct?

Yet the point of Jessa Crispin is that employers should have policies in place to forbid and define sexual harassment (a much bigger issue) and steer away from interfering in peoples’ personal lives. Romantic entanglements are a ‘fact of working life’ and to impose a draconian policy which almost outlaws it, isn’t as easy or practical as one might like to think. The truth is, humans are humans, and there will always be romance, flings, romps, full-blown relationships and (even) one night stands between co-workers. Right or wrong; like or hate it; it happens, will continue to do so and if you fire every single person guilty of ‘office romance’ the numbers could be quite high.

Returning to the McDonalds case, if the people involved were not so high profile and if Steve Easterbrook was not paid €21 million, I wonder if the company would have taken such a decision? I mean, legally, can an employer terminate someone’s employment because he/she is involved in a ‘consensual’ romantic relationship with a co-worker? What if the parties, when confronted, neither confirm nor deny the ‘romantic’ relationship and claim a right to privacy? What if there is no direct ‘conflict of interest’ and company productivity is not affected? Do employees / people have a right to privacy in such instances, as defined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act?

I am sure you will agree that the issue is complicated and merits much thought. I personally think HR Professionals have a big responsibility to balance different and sometimes opposing interests.

This is why companies have professionals responsible for Human Resource Management and expect their HR Professionals to wear different hats in such situations: the hat of the Employer; the hat of the Employee. Since ultimately interests converge, diverge and coalesce but HR needs to champion both interests and sometimes more than that.

Maybe it is wiser to steer away from any grey areas and forbid any form of romantic relationships? Alternatively, maybe the best approach is to decide on a case-by-case basis and to discourage ‘office romance’ rather than forbidding it?

What I am certain of, is that this issue will increasingly be present on the HR radar and HR Professionals had better be ready and prepared, since there is a minefield to walk through and the best ‘solution’ isn’t as obvious as the McDonald’s incident seems to imply.

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