It’s that time of year again; the mistletoe is in sight, and it’s all glitz, glamour and sparkles for the work Christmas party. But why is it that, at this time of year, romantic workplace relationships seem to escalate? Is the cold weather making us want to cosy up with someone, the excitement of a kiss at the Christmas party, family pressures to settle down, or are we influenced by what we see in many Christmas films?
Mandy Watson, Director of Ambitions Personnel, explores some common workplace relationships in which you might have found yourself and how to solve or overcome the situation.
The ‘Love Actually’ situation
Is a married colleague engaging with you flirtatiously at work? To you, it’s nothing more than a bit of fun, but for them, they’re taking things seriously and have even bought you an expensive Christmas gift. As a result, other staff members might treat you differently, give you snide looks, and disapprove of your relationship with your married colleague. It might be that you never intended for it to get this far and don’t want to cause division or awkwardness in the workplace.
Mandy advises: “It’s only natural that colleagues can become friends – after all, we spend so much of our time at work, often seeing more of our colleagues daily than our own friends and family. If a friendship starts to become something more romantic for one person, but it’s not reciprocated, things can quickly become awkward and even sour. Add in one or both of those people being married or with a serious partner into the mix, and it’s a recipe for disaster on many levels, not least opening the people involved up for moral judgment.
“Perhaps in an employer’s ideal world, employees’ work lives and personal lives would be kept separate. But realistically, this isn’t always going to happen.
“In the scenario that plays out in Love Actually where it tips into full blown extra marital affair territory, it would be nearly impossible to repair any damage once it’s occurred without a major change – such as one of the parties resigning or being moved.”
‘The Holiday’ predicament
Do you have feelings for or history with a colleague, and they are using this soft spot you have for them to their advantage? They may have previously flirted with the idea that you two could be an item, but nothing serious has ever come of it. But alongside their flirting, are they always asking a favour of you regarding their workload? You might find yourself taking on extra work to help them out and rushing to complete deadlines that aren't necessarily your own. Perhaps it’s gotten to the point where you feel like you can’t say no to their requests, no matter how straining they may be.
Mandy says: “Saying no at work can be difficult, especially if you’re naturally a people-pleaser. If the colleague in question holds a more senior or influential position, it becomes all the more difficult again.
“It’s ok to help colleagues out once in a while, especially if you have the capacity to do so, but if it becomes ‘assumed’, then it’s time to start setting some boundaries – whether that’s directly, in a non-confrontational yet assertive way or by escalating to your line manager or other senior colleague as appropriate.”
The ‘Elf’ scenario
Has a colleague made it known they have feelings for you? Maybe you’re starting to reciprocate these feelings but are unsure of the rules regarding relationships in the workplace. Should you keep the relationship strictly professional or act upon your feelings?
Here is what you should do, according to Mandy: “As we’ve said, it’s only to be expected that sometimes, work colleagues can become friends outside of work, and sometimes these relationships can turn into something more romantic. When it’s two single consenting adults, it should be straightforward, right? But often, that’s not the case.
“Workplace relationships can be problematic for employers on many levels – they might be concerned from a legal perspective about a conflict of interest, preferential treatment or a breach of confidentially, for example, or perhaps about a possible impact on morale or productivity, especially what would happen in the event of an argument or breakup situation.
“There’s no legislation in the UK preventing or governing workplace relationships, so businesses are free to make their own policies on these matters – but these should be reasonable and justified, like simply asking the couple to disclose their relationships so that they can put any necessary measures in place. A blanket ban is unlikely to be deemed reasonable in most cases (and is also unlikely to really stop it from happening!).”
The ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ circumstance
Has your boss been flirting with you? Perhaps it felt exciting initially; you were receiving special attention, being pulled into the boss’ office for one-to-one meetings, and throwing flirtatious and slightly inappropriate messages back and forth over the office’s online chat space or email. Maybe you even went out on a few dates or for after-work drinks and thought the relationship could have great potential. Then, for whatever reason, the relationship turned sour, and now you feel trapped in a job with bad blood.
Mandy says: “Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that is offensive or makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or humiliated. It’s important to remember that sexual harassment doesn’t just include physical contact; it can look like flirting, asking questions about someone’s sex life, making jokes or sexual remarks.
“Just because behaviour like this might have previously been tolerated or might even be disguised as ‘banter’ – as though it’s an intrinsic part of office culture, however, that doesn’t make it ok.
“You may wish to seek advice from a colleague, manager, trade union representative or HR department in the first instance. If appropriate, you should file a complaint with your employer, who has a legal responsibility to take this seriously. They might have a written policy in place which sets out the process they’ll follow for handling such complaints, but even if they don’t, they still need to deal with it within a reasonable timeframe, fairly and with sensitivity.”
Judging from these Christmas films, work relationships are probably best avoided. Not only does the evidence show they tend to end badly, but by engaging in a romantic workplace relationship, you also risk creating an awkward atmosphere for your colleagues.
Plus, with ITV recently making it mandatory for its employees to declare any relationship with another colleague, whether friendly or romantic, to the employer at the earliest stage, will other employers follow suit?