Employees falling in love with each other is not uncommon. But franchisors have to be prepared to step in if it starts causing issues in the workplace
From plummeting performance to unnecessary gossip, workplace romances could potentially cause franchisors a lot of headaches. But whether business leaders like it or not, few precautions can prevent employees from having a fling. “The mature attitude is to accept that people will have relationships in the workplace,” says David Southall, employment law consultant at ELAS Group, the business support firm. The numbers certainly back him up as 57% of workers have had a fling with a colleague, according to research by Vault, the company-review and ratings agency. However, staff members being affectionate towards each other doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “It should be all right if everyone is grownup about it,” says Southall. “Mostly people conduct themselves professionally at work and save the romance for after hours or during their lunch breaks. But it’s when it interrupts the natural smooth running of the business that it becomes an issue.”
One case he consulted on in particular reminds him of how office romances can go horribly wrong. “It was a junior female member of staff who had an affair with a male manager,” Southall says. The affair didn’t end well for the company. Shortly after they broke up, the company went through a restructuring, leaving a lot of employees without a job. Feeling that she had been sacked because of her romance with her boss and not because it was the best thing for the company, she threatened to drag the firm before an employment tribunal. “It was eventually settled out of court,” says Southall. “Not because the firm accepted any liability but because it didn’t want to air its dirty laundry in public and it didn’t want to embarrass the married manager.” For franchisors, the story should act as a cautionary tale that they need to take office romances seriously or risk facing the consequences.
And while the fallout may not always be as extreme, relationships between co-workers could still impair business performance. “Basically, when two people are romantically involved they may spend too much time emailing, texting, WhatsApping or chatting around the water cooler and not doing their jobs,” says Southall. And it’s not just the happy couple who may experience a dip in their results. “A manager could for instance let the entire team go early just because he or she wants to go on a date,” says Southall.
Even though few employees would say no to going home early, not all co-workers will be equally thrilled about a blossoming office romance. “Unfortunately it’s human nature for people to make negative assumptions about a person who’s in a relationship with someone at work,” says Sandy Middleton, senior HR manager at Racepoint Global, the PR agency. For instance, a study published in the Western Journal of Communication found that most workers frown upon office romances. The negative impact could be particularly difficult if one person in the relationship is more senior than the other. “Colleagues may believe that there is favouritism,” says Middleton. “Perhaps they think they get allocated better jobs or tasks, receive better salary increases or bonuses or have access to confidential information about the business or other staff.”
Given that having workers that are romantically involved could impair their bottom line, franchisors may be tempted to introduce policies to control office flings. And they wouldn’t be the only ones. “A lot of American companies have non-relationship policies,” says Southall. “The problem is that it is impossible to control. Human nature is human nature. If two people are attracted to each other then they will proceed to have a relationship whether there is a policy or not.” And contrary to whatever the franchisor might have intended when introducing the policy, a full-out ban could actually end up causing even more problems for everyone involved. Not only could it lead to a lot of secrecy but it could also prevent employees from voicing grievances about someone they are or have been romantically involved with, as they may face a backlash for breaching the company’s non-relationship policy. “So these absolute and puritanical policies aren’t really practical,” says Southall.
Rather than introducing a ban on office romances, other employers may just have a policy about employees disclosing their relationship. “Other companies have policies where couples have to declare to a superior that they are going out,” explains Southall. But despite the fact that policies like these may encourage more transparency, he isn’t sure they’re really necessary if the relationship doesn’t affect work. “The thing is that people will always know anyhow, no matter how subtle people think they are,” he says. “Someone’s going to see them check in on the same place on social media. So all you’ll end up with is a policy forcing them to tell you something you probably already know.” Instead, Southhall argues that company policies about performance should already be enough if an employee isn’t performing well enough.
However, just because those clauses may make it easier for franchisors to act, it doesn’t meant that they shouldn’t tread carefully. “Proceed with caution,” says Middleton. “You need a lot of evidence to be able to say that the relationship directly affects performance.” A good place to start could simply be to engage in an informal chat about how the performance has been dipping. “If you feel that someone is struggling at work, for whatever reason, a manager should speak to the employee and find out what’s impacting their work before taking any action,” says Middleton. In many cases this informal chat may be enough to solve the problem.
Unfortunately, there are cases where an informal discussion won’t be enough. “If the performance continues to dip then you can take formal disciplinary actions,” says Southall. For instance, the employee could be issued with a warning if they are unable to provide a proper explanation for their faltering results that isn’t connected to the relationship. If the employee’s performance isn’t improving they could be issued with a final warning. “And in the end they could end up losing their jobs,” says Southall. “But the important thing that they are punished for their performance and not the relationship.”
Ultimately, workplace romances can’t be avoided but franchisors can ensure that there are ways to avoid them interrupting their business. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just human nature,” concludes Southall. “But companies shouldn’t be afraid to step in when employees aren’t doing their jobs because of the relationship.”