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An office romance – could it affect your career?

Barack and Michelle Obama met at work. So did Bill and Melinda Gates, not to mention Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Considering how much time we spend with our colleagues it's hardly surprising that so many love matches are forged in the workplace.

A recent survey by Totaljobs found that 22 per cent of people met their partner through work and a third remain open to the idea of dating a co-worker now or in the future.

But is a consensual office romance really a good idea when it comes to your career? And what precautions should you take if love blossoms?

What can go wrong?

As McDonald's chief executive, Steve Easterbrook knows, the cost of dating a colleague can be high.

He was sacked after the McDonald's board decided he had violated company policy - which explicitly stated that employees were not allowed to have relationships. He was said to have 'demonstrated poor judgement involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee'.

Whilst office romances don't necessarily cause problems, complications commonly occur when someone in senior management dates someone in a much more junior role.

It's often not easy for either party to cope with all the implications for favouritism, conflict of interest and even allegations of sexual harassment that this might entail.


Other problems can include productivity issues, unprofessional behaviour in the office, tension and gossip.

The survey of almost 6,000 people also found:

  • One in three workers who'd had a relationship with a colleague felt judged by other people in the office;
  • Just over half said gossip had put considerable pressure on the relationship and created tension in the office;
  • Thirty per cent of women who'd dated a manager said they felt it had affected their chance of promotion, compared to 22 per cent of men who'd dated a manager;
  • Almost 40 per cent felt that their office romance was not compatible with work and so ended the relationship.

Play by the rules

When it comes to dating a colleague, the first thing to check is whether your company has a policy on personal relationships at work and whether it requires you to inform your HR manager of any office romance.

Even if there is no specific policy, it's often best to be upfront and tell your manager anyway, particularly if you know the relationship is going to be a serious one.

It's also crucial to ensure you act professionally at all times - that means no love notes over the desk, no public displays of affection and no rows. In some workplaces, it may mean thinking about whether your relationship creates a potential conflict of interest for yourself or others and acting to avoid this. It also means being able to remain civil to each other if you break up.

Importantly, you should also know your rights:

  • The Human Rights Act 1998 entitles you to a private life. Unless you are bound by a policy like the one that saw Steve Easterbrook sacked, you should be able to have a relationship without fear of losing your job as a result;
  • An employer has the right to reshuffle duties if a manager starts dating someone on a lower level but it is unlawful to treat men and women differently because of their sex.

For help and guidance about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors' Employment Team, Business Employment Team or Employment Law Specialist Solicitor Julia Beasley directly.

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