The return to the office has brought attention back to love contracts as employers brace for the next wave of workplace love affairs.
The effort to discourage public displays of affection in the workplace is commendable: few policies could quite so well undermine the natural flow of office infatuation as the bureaucracy of a love contract.
But employers are right that romantically involved employees often create more problems than they solve. For decades, HR teams have looked to limit legal liability with signed agreements to protect against allegations of favouritism or improper conduct.
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The question follows: in 2022, who has the energy anyway? Young people are struggling to feel engaged in their work, over a third dread the day ahead most nights of the week, and a majority of virtual employees say having friends on their team is unimportant to them.
But while people are posting less in group Teams channels – according to Microsoft – they are engaging more in small groups and one-to-one conversations since the pandemic started.
The number of US workers with current or prior experience of an office romance is 27% higher than it was before the pandemic, with a quarter shacking up in lockdown.
One issue is workplace relationships create conflicts of interest, especially when someone rises to a position of seniority. Only 65% of workplace lovebirds dated peers, leaving the rest dating managers and subordinates.
This is fine – until that manager has to choose somebody for promotion or to make redundancies. At which point, any personal relationship is bound to raise questions around preferential treatment.
Office romance may also entangle with workplace harassment policies; consensual relationships out of the office may become an HR issue if behaviour crosses the line of appropriate conduct within.
And if things do break down, colleagues may struggle to guarantee clear decision-making if interpersonal conflicts are getting in the way. Should everybody else’s work suffer because two people can no longer cooperate?
So how should managers deal with office romances?
Take a step back. It is not the business of business to involve itself in an employee’s relationship…until it is. Once an office romance starts to hinder the work or development of others, damage control is in everybody’s interest.
Ugly as the idea may be, a contract grounds a new relationship in pragmatism early on, supporting the wider team without stepping on freedoms.
With or without a love contract, the starting point is a healthy culture of communication. If employees do not feel that they can approach their employer with a concern, a complaint or a mistake, toxicity will fester.
Office romances are inevitable regardless of policy, and employers are most useful to their team where they can facilitate the kind of relaxed, transparent culture that allows issues to be raised and addressed promptly. Strict, unsympathetic cultures do not avoid unhealthy workplace relationships; they enable them.
When we employ people, we do so expecting that we can trust them to do their job to the best of their ability. Where possible, we must avoid the temptation to involve ourselves where we do not belong.
Policy must exist to support employees, offering help when helpful and not before.
Alper Yurder is UK manager of hybrid working app Witco