Employers should have an enlightened attitude towards office romances. Those involved could well perform better if they feel their environment is supportive, says Steve Crabb

With St Valentine’s Day still fresh in our memories, I thought I’d devote this Careers File to the subject of romance in the workplace - a topic that’s recently sparked some interesting new research.
For most of recorded history, most employers have tried their best to keep relationships at work strictly platonic; you really have to go back to the armies of ancient Greece to find a working environment where romance was actively encouraged. It’s not that long since women in the civil service were forced to resign when they got married.
If anything, attitudes have hardened. In the US, increasing numbers of employers have been introducing contractual clauses forbidding office romances, while employees complain that they are afraid to ask colleagues out for fear of being hit with a sexual harassment suit. Up to a fifth of UK employers also have restrictive policies in place.
But the evidence suggests that employers are fighting a battle they can’t win. The key piece of legislation here is the 1998 Human Rights Act, which guarantees individual freedoms and can’t be over-ridden by an employment contract. Writing in People Management magazine, employment lawyer Roger Byard of Cripps Harries Hall advised: “A well thought-out relationship policy can be of practical use to employers if it reduces the risk of harassment by encouraging the promotion of equal opportunity and an environment where work relationships have clear boundaries. The problems would begin where the employer tried to enforce such policies. Any court or tribunal asked to consider the lawfulness of a policy would apply the HRA test and so draw its teeth.”
Nor are such policies stopping co-workers from co-habiting, or at least having the odd fling. A survey by online jobsite Monster this month found that 60% of UK workers had had a romantic relationship with a colleague. And a survey published this month in the US, where the rules are stricter, found that 40% of employees there had had a workplace romance. Furthermore, only 4% of professionals questioned in the CareerJournal.com survey felt that romance should be forbidden at work - in fact, they took a more liberal attitude than the workforce as a whole, 14% of whom frowned on intra-office liaisons.
The HR people were right, according to research presented at January’s conference of the British Psychological Society. Chantal Gautier, a psychology lecturer at the University of Westminster, reported that people involved in positive, happy romantic relationships with colleagues often perform better as a result, at least once the initial distraction has worn off. But those who are forced to conceal their relationships because of hostile policies, or see their relationships turn sour possibly as a result of an unsupportive environment, are more likely to suffer a dip in their productivity.
Gautier argues that workplace romances are unavoidable, and they are only going to increase as more and more people start looking for life partners only once they’ve started work. Being thrown together with people with similar backgrounds, values and expectations, who are working long hours and have limited opportunities to meet prospective partners outside work only makes the mix more combustible.
And there’s a surprisingly high success rate for these matches, even in the disapproving climate of US offices nearly two-thirds of workplace relationships end up in marriage.
n Steve Crabb is editor of People Management