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The ‘Barnaby effect’ or How to manage an office romance

By February 20, 2018November 13th, 2020Blog
How to manage an office romance

The ‘Barnaby effect’ or How to manage an office romance

A week before the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, hit the headlines for having an affair with an employee, one of my HR clients asked me how to manage an office romance between 2 staff.

The office romance is not a new phenomenon. In the 2018 Vault Office Romance Survey, they found that 52% of respondents admitted to having at least one office romance. And only 4% of respondents indicated that they found the idea of any kind of workplace romance between consenting colleagues to be unacceptable.

According to the 2016 Australian Census, 43% of Australians adults are working more than 40 hours per week. Employees working long hours, and particularly those that work remotely or shift work, may find that their social life involves their work colleagues.

Cards on the table, I met my husband at work. Thinking back over my career, I can count more than a dozen sets of married colleagues that had met at work (many working together), and that number doubled when I started including family and friends.

So as an employer, the question is how to manage an office romance if it comes to your attention that two of your employees are dating. How do you manage the risk? And is it really any of your business at all?

Each situation will be unique and one blanket approach, such as the new rules brought in by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball, are not the answer. There are several considerations.

What is their working relationship?

Consenting adults do have the right to their privacy, but an office romance can affect the workplace. The most significant factor is the working relationship between the two parties. I divide them into low risk, and high risk and your approach will depend on which category the employees fall.

Low Risk

If the employees are working at a similar level in the organisation, their relationship will probably be low risk, especially if they have little or no day to day interaction.

If the couple are working in the same team, or in roles that require regular interaction, as long as the employees conduct themselves professionally, that is, they don’t allow their personal life to cross into the workplace, there is little risk to the business.

The main issue that may arise with relationships in this category is if the relationship breaks down and other employees get dragged into the situation. This, like any inappropriate workplace behaviour, should be managed on a case by case basis.

High Risk

When the relationship is between a manager and an employee, particularly if that employee is a direct report, the risk is much higher for all parties, including the employer.

This risk extends to any relationship where one party may have the opportunity to influence the other employee’s career or performance through resource allocation, career progression or pay.

Perception is a funny thing. Even when both parties keep their relationship utterly separate to their work, it opens the door for others to question their decisions or actions.

For a manager, it may raise questions about their professionalism or judgement. That they have misused their position of power and influence over the other employee. If the relationship goes wrong, it gets even more complicated.

The effect on the career of the non-management employee can be far more detrimental. Their accomplishments may be put down to their relationship rather than their effort. Earned promotions or pay rises may be questioned. Their working relationship with their team may change with coworkers more guarded about what they say or do in fear of being reported back to the manager. These circumstances can make for a tense and unpleasant working environment for everyone.

For the employer, it can affect the organisational culture. Other employees in the organisation may perceive that there is preferential treatment of the employee in the relationship. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. The damage will already be done.

In any situation where one person has a conflict of interest due to their role, it can get complicated. I once had a senior manager avoid discussing an underperforming employee he knew I was friends with out of work. Now imagine that I was dating one of his subordinates. My advice would always be questioned.

So how should you manage an office romance?

A blanket ‘one size fits all’ policy does not work just because every situation is different. A policy that bans workplace relationships will not stop them. It will only mean that employees go to greater lengths to hide them. It is harder to manage the risks if you are not aware of them until the situation blows up.

If you want to have a written policy in this area, include it with reporting a potential conflict of interest. You would expect an employee to disclose a potential conflict of interest because of a personal relationship with a potential supplier or client. You can also ask employees to reveal an internal relationship so it can be managed.

Every business should also have clear guidelines and definitions in their Workplace Harassment and Bullying policy on what constitutes sexual harassment.

Communication is key. Encourage your employees to be open. If you become aware that an office romance exists, quietly have a word with them. Be clear on the your concerns. That they must remain professional and not allow the relationship to affect other employees or the business.

If the situation involves a manager and subordinate, you may need to be more formal with your approach. Be very careful that you don’t make rash decisions such as making changes to their job without good reason. Speak to them about the potential risks and the actions that need to be taken to avoid them.

If you find yourself in a situation where employee behaviour had become unprofessional or inappropriate, manage this behaviour in the same way you would any other poor performance issue. That is, following a formal investigation process based on the circumstances of each particular incident.

Don’t let an office romance ruin your career

It makes a fun dinner party story to say ‘I sacked him so I could date him’ when asked how I met my husband. But I was acutely aware of the consequences of dating an employee as an HR Manager. No matter how impartial I was, my professionalism would be questioned had we continued to work together. In our case, he was leaving the organisation so that issue was removed.  But this is not always the case.

As an individual, it is naive to think your actions are not going to reflect on how others perceive you. If you are a manager and employee considering a romantic relationship, you need to go in with your eyes open. Understanding that the relationship can affect you both professionally. ‘My private life is my own business’ will not change the fact that many will judge you on your choices.


Need specific advice on how to handle a tricky staff situation? Why not book an obligation free HR Consultation with Strawberry Seed today.

Carli Saw

Author Carli Saw

Carli is a Human Resources professional with more than 20 years of experience across a range of industries and a passion for supporting small business.

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