All's fair in love and HR

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Happy Valentine's Day!

It's Valentine's Day and love is in the air – but should it be in the HR department? Sarah Fletcher investigates.

"The course of true love never did run smooth," said Shakespeare; and anyone who has witnessed a workplace romance can testify that, 400 years later, nothing has changed. Whether floating around on a cloud of joy, or inches away from causing near-fatal damage with a staple gun, relationships in the office can be problematic for everyone.

So what happens when the HR department is the scene for the budding romance? Should HR set an example by shunning potentially distracting affairs and focusing on the needs of other employees?

If you know there's more than just pens in the stationery cupboard, is it your duty to confess? Ultimately, is it really any of our business?

"We spend more than half of our waking lives in the office, so the office romance is a pretty natural occurrence."

Nik Kellingley, training consultant

"Firstly, I'm not sure that office romances do have an impact on anything as long as they are handled properly and professionally," says training consultant Nik Kellingley. "We spend more than half of our waking lives in the office, so the office romance is a pretty natural occurrence."

A blossoming romance

Given that many HR departments are fairly small and often work closely together, it's not surprising that romance blossoms. "I worked with an HR team that were all friends and often socialised outside of work. When you're spending so much time with people and sharing the same experiences, it often leads naturally to relationships," says HR officer Susan Brown.

"This might have caused problems for other employees, but as the people in relationships never abused their position to get their partner special treatment, it wasn't an issue," she adds.

HR manager Fiona Fritz agrees: "Staff concerns in situations like this often centre on the possibility of collusion and breaches in confidence (which could be applicable to HR) or more favourable treatment for one person because of their relationship with a manager."

This is key: workplace relationships aren't bound to lead to disaster, but employers must put clear guidelines and rules in place to ensure that all staff feel love isn't tearing them apart.

"I am not sure if I agree with policies 'banning' office romances - human nature is such that they are unlikely to be adhered to; but there should be at least some rules to help maintain peace and harmony," says Fritz.

Love by the water cooler

Instead of imposing a ban upon all office romance, organisations should acknowledge that relationships in the workplace are likely, rather than punishing employees for finding love at the water cooler.

"It makes more sense for people to declare their 'interest' as it were, and for employers to try and ensure that conflicts of interest don't occur, rather than sweeping bans on office relationships, which people are naturally going to circumvent," adds Kellingley.

Organisations should set clear guidelines and rules on managing workplace relationships – and this should apply to everyone, including HR. "It is the same rule for all," says Fritz. "If one department thinks it's different, it is bound to cause bad feeling."

"I am not sure if I agree with policies 'banning' office romances - human nature is such that they are unlikely to be adhered to."

Fiona Fritz, HR manager

The goodwill of other staff is crucial to ensure that workplace relationships don't cause problems among the team. "The potential for conflict, real or imagined, is quite high," says consultant Don Rhodes. "It matters little that rules might say their personal relationship stays outside in the car park and all that, but it's how the rest of the team views the relationship that is the decider," he adds.

"There is no one-size fits all solution, but there is one recommendation: once it has been decided how to handle the various relationships, be sure and document the guidelines so everybody knows exactly where they stand, and that includes the rest of the team," says Rhodes. "From this clear and solid base, it is then much easier to manage."

Perhaps employers should actually be encouraging staff to find love at work as, according to Rhodes, it may offer a surprising benefit: the loved-up couple actually work harder, to prove they aren't getting special treatment.

"In my experience, one thing is for sure and that is the productivity of the people most often moves up several notches," notes Rhodes. "Both parties are desperate to prevent any possible criticism their work is not as it should be."

Ultimately, employers should be wary of banning relationships or encouraging other staff to expose the romance, as this is bound to create an unpleasant work environment and, as Kellingley points out, a breakdown of trust between colleagues.

The solution is to accept that such relationships are an inevitable part of working life and to build their policies around them: "Employers need to work harder so that people can have and enjoy private lives," says Kellingley.

"Develop policies that encourage openness and honesty so that issues don't arise from an office relationship, rather than coming in two-footed to destroy people's happiness," he adds. Embrace the love, and employees will love you too.

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