Love is in the air everywhere I look around, Love is in the air every sight and every sound…

Ohhh it’s St Valentine’s Day again, the ultimate “hallmark holiday” to some, a love-filled day for others, and for a lot of employers: a cue to discourage office romance (or attempt to try and confirm suspicion of its existence between certain employees).

We all know at least one couple that met each other at work. According to Relationships Australia, 40% of people aged 35-50yrs met their partner at work. But did you know of all these office romances, a recent study by CareerBuilder found that only one third will stand the test of time and make it to marriage? Let that sink in for a minute. There it is… your mental agreement with that statistic, as the long list of failed office romances (and images of the awkward aftermath) begin spiralling back through your front of mind.

For every couple we know that met at work, there’s two that we know that the love didn’t last for. That’s four people who had to return to the same workplace and have all the stages of the break-up process play out in front of their colleagues (and Managers). Of course sometimes this can be relatively painless and short-lived, but what about when it is not? What can employers do? And can it really affect business? Put simply, ignoring it or choosing to believe that “they are adults and will sort it out themselves” can be a costly exercise.

Think about it, what could the impact of a bad break-up in your business be? The list could potentially be endless once started. For example, for:

  • The Failed Couple – misconduct, deformation claims, conflict, misuse of power, bullying and/or harassment allegations, stress, isolation, decrease in performance, resignation;
  • The Co-Workers –  social division, conflict, bullying and/or harassment allegations, decrease in performance; and
  • The Organisation – decline in performance and productivity, conflict among co-workers, increase in absenteeism or leave requests, costs & resources associated with managing inappropriate behaviour or misconduct issues, loss of talent and IP, costs & resources associated with rehiring (e.g. due to resignation or termination), delays in product/service delivery etc.

Australia is unlikely to see the ‘love contracts’ of USA workplaces in practice here any time soon, so for now managing workplace romances starts with a robust Conflict of Interest Policy that includes a reasonable requirement to disclose such relationships. The 2015 case of Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation highlights the importance of such a Policy in the current work environment. In this case, a Senior Bank Manager with 16 years’ service was dismissed for having a romantic relationship with a directly reporting employee – he positioned that his dismissal was unfair. Westpac argued that the former Senior Manager breached company policy by failing to disclose the romantic relationship in accordance with their Conflict of Interest Policy.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled that the dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable; stating that whilst employers cannot prohibit employees from having romantic relationships, in some circumstances there is the potential for conflict of interest – and employers have a right to manage this. Generally, this is where there is a power imbalance, such as in this case, where a manager formed a romantic relationship with a subordinate. The FWC concluded that the dismissal was reasonable due to the Senior Manager’s failure to disclose his relationship (as required under company policy), and also his dishonesty in lying to his Manager about the relationship.

So, how can Employers manage the fall-out and assist the two employees in question to return to the workplace and move forward effectively?

1.       Establish a fit-for-purpose Conflict of Interest Policy

The Policy should contain clear parameters of appropriate and inappropriate relationships in the workplace, in the context of power, authority and reporting lines. The policy should also define at what point such relationships should be disclosed, a general definition of ‘romantic relationship’ and how confidentiality will be upheld and attitudes toward office romances/affairs/cheating will be managed internally. The point of when the relationship should be disclosed should be early, taking into account, particularly, where one partner is reporting to the other, granting administrative requests (leave, expenses etc.), or involved with the other persons’ performance appraisals. must first think through at what point an employee discloses an office romance, just how an office romance is defined, how different attitudes to affairs or ‘cheating’ will be managed.

2.       Create Awareness of Expectations

Invest in imbedding the Code of Conduct and providing education in relation to appropriate workplace behavioural standards in advance (including the definition and examples of sexual harassment, and the broad definition/scope of the ‘workplace’).

3.       Provide support to those involved in a failed office romance

Don’t just ignore it or leave them to figure it out on their own. Getting them back on track in terms of performance and motivation will occur sooner if they have management support. Consider supporting them by: provide them some distance in the workplace if possible (even for a short period of time), offer them independent counselling through your Employee Assistance Program, approving their leave request or suggesting they take a few days / week leave, and/or offering them mediation. At the very least, check-in with them – have the difficult conversation, trust us it is more awkward for them than it is for you – ask them what support they need from you.

At the end of the day, managing the aftermath of failed office romances can be a large grey area for Employers, trying to balance a see-saw of privacy with conflict management. Don’t worry if you cannot see the ‘right way’ for your organisation from all the grey – we can help! Let us know about your #officeromancecrisis at solve@fiveseven.com.au and one of our experienced consultants can assist you in preventing or managing the aftermath today.


Jane McConville

With a passion for strategic thinking, Jane believes ardently in collaborating with clients to solve their problems through specific, tailored, and realistic advice that supports....

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