romantic relationship at workplace

How do we respond to people at work who are in a romantic relationship?

Office Romances are inevitable. In fact, according to February 2022 data from the US’s Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) workplace romance may have actually increased post Pandemic. 

While it’s important to discuss responding to these situations from a management perspective and an individual perspective as persons in the relationship, it’s equally important to acknowledge and speak about the impact and changes from the perspective of the team. In fact sudden romances in the workplace have been known to impact team dynamics, creating discomfort and impacting performance. 

This means that it’s possible to experience the people around us at the workplace may be in a romantic relationship, and it’s important to understand how that might impact existing relationships, and therefore how to navigate that impact. 

When 2 people get closer, it may feel a little excluding for the people around them, as the nature of the dynamic shifts and closeness develops around those people in a relationship. Moreover, there may also be some more affectionate behaviours that they might share together, and that can make people uncomfortable. There may also be concerns relating to equal opportunity, bias and preferential treatment due to the relationship. 

All of this together may bring up a lot of intense emotions like anger, sadness, disgust and even envy. Feeling all of these feelings and more are valid and it’s okay. It’s important to remember to respond to these emotions from a place of maturity and empathy. 

Accept the shifting reality:

Firstly, we need to be able to accept that change is constant, and this means that certain equations that we have with people may also change over time.  This is especially true when people start new relationships, and their attention and focus may be driven towards establishing and exploring a new relationship. 

It’s important to recognise that not all the emotions that may emerge at this point may be happy emotions, even if one is happy for the persons in the relationship. There may be other human emotions that may be emerging due to the change including fear, annoyance, sadness, abandonment, loss, confusion and maybe even resentment and envy, if the relationship is sudden or the changes emerging from these situations are drastic. Feeling all of these is okay, provided we make space to explore these emotions and respond from a space of care, empathy and maturity. 

Set boundaries:
If there are aspects of the couple’s relationship that you feel are getting in the way of your work or make you uncomfortable it’s okay to call it out, if you want to. This could range from inappropriate displays of affection at the workplace to requests to ‘cover’ for them and inappropriate conversations about the couple’s private life. It’s healthy to communicate the boundaries of the emerging relationship with you and the persons in a romantic relationship. 

You can also reach out to your manager, mentor or buddy to help you navigate the issues arising from the any situations causing discomfort. 

Avoid Gossip:

Talking about people behind their back is one of the ways in which people respond when there are big changes or new updates about people lives coming in. The issue that may arise because of gossip however is that actual facts may get distorted as they make their way along the grapevine. This can tarnish a person’s reputation and create a lot of distress for them as well, creating an unhealthy workplace dynamic.  

Moreover, if the gossip is of a sexual nature, it can come under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, also known as the POSH Law, as part of the definition of creating a hostile workplace environment and can be escalated as a formal complaint to the Internal Committee (IC). 

Don’t “Out” the relationship:
Sometimes we may know details about the relationship that others don’t including the status of the relationship itself, remember not to out them to the team. 

If your workplace policies require you to report the relationship, do so in a manner that is respectful and only to the authorised personnel to deal with it. 

It may be supportive to suggest to the persons in a relationship to disclose their relationship status if that is part of company policies like the Anti Fraternization, Dating Disclosure Policies or even the organisational Code of Conduct.   

Playing Cupid: 

In some cultures the start of relationships may be seen as a very positive event, and some team members try to set people up, or push them together when they believe that they may be in a relationship secretly.  

However forcibly pushing people together may actually make them very uncomfortable even if they are in a relationship. This could also come under the definition of creating a hostile workplace environment under POSH Law and can be escalated as a formal complaint to the Internal Committee (IC). 

The idea of ‘giving them time’ alone may actually put an undue spotlight on the persons in a relationship and may exclude them from events and experiences within the team that they may have wanted to be part of, thereby making it awkward and putting a strain on all the relationships involved. 

Break ups:

Sometimes office relationships end, and this can get messy. There may be even more angst and discomfort within the team, and it’s quite normal for people to “take sides” and the team may get polarized.  

At this time, it’s important to keep all the above points in mind. Relationships may change again because of the break up, and not just with the persons in the relationship.  

It’s important to hold on to a neutral stance and try and be empathetic to both persons in the relationship. Remember that one does not know exactly what happens within a close relationship, and it may be supportive to listen without bias or judgment, and keep any professional interactions objective.  

If someone seems to be languishing in this context it’s okay to support them in accessing therapeutic support as well. 

Discrimination and bias: 

Something that is absolutely not okay regards workplace romances is the favouritism, discrimination and loss of opportunity that may occur for others as a consequence of unethical or maladaptive practice, particularly if one of the people in the relationship is in a position of power. 

It can feel intimidating to escalate inappropriate behaviour against a person in such a position however it is important to do so  especially if the channels for escalation are available at the workplace. Not having space to do this may lead to quiet quitting or actually impact retention of talent at the workplace owing to the frustration and disappointment that may percolate amongst the team. 

Remember, it’s okay to feel what you are feeling, and if those  feelings are overwhelming or confusing it’s okay to reach out for therapeutic support.  

Written By Rosanna Rodrigues and Samriti Makkar Midha 

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