It’s a story that is likely to resonate with many. In HR Management's survey of 553 readers, half of HR professionals admitted they’d had a relationship with a colleague and, in one-fifth of cases, one or both of them was already in a relationship. Which is unsurprising when you consider that a recent survey by Business Insider revealed 90% of us have been sexually attracted to a colleague. And of the 54% who said they’d had sex with a colleague, 49% had done so at the office.
“People find prohibition exciting. The formality of the office context gets people thinking: they start wondering what the person three desks down might be like in bed,” says psychologist Oliver James. “Then you get the contrast that happens when everybody goes from that formal setting to the much more informal setting of the pub. Out of that can come either ordinary or illicit relationships. Part of the spice lies in keeping it a secret from your colleagues.”
But it’s not all about covert glances across a crowded office or shenanigans in the stationery cupboard. Our survey shows the majority of relationships (65%) are with peers, and James points out that around 40% of people meet the person they are going to have children with through the workplace.
Given the increasing permissiveness of wider society, it’s inevitable there will be more chemistry in the workplace. But while a few years ago a wave of companies were drawing up “love contracts” to try and control budding romances, there now seems to be a growing acceptance that you can’t legislate for affairs of the heart – and that in some cases they may even be good for business (though many leaders would make a distinction between illicit trysts and true love).
Your attitude to the moral dimensions of romance at work is likely to depend on your age. According to a US study, millennials are the most likely to have had an office romance (84%), compared with 36% of those aged 30-45 and 29% of those over 46. They are also more likely to see workplace romance as having positive effects, such as improved performance and morale.
Companies also need to be aware of the potential for confidential information to be shared, says Volkmer, or where checks and balances could be compromised – for instance in financial institutions, most of which require employees to disclose relationships.
“As an employer, the main risk of office relationships is if there’s a conflict of interest as a result of the relationship or if one person has the power to make decisions over another’s role,” she says.
Business Insider’s survey found 92% of people think HR has no right to know if we’re sleeping with someone from the office – something the HR department at may companies discovered to its cost when its proposed policy for office romances hit the headlines a few years ago.
“It is only if you allow these things to fester that you get all the politics and rumour and innuendo.” And, given there’s already plenty of that in the average office, that’s probably something you’d rather avoid.
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