Compiled By: Sandeep Raghunath
About Sandeep: He is the Head of Human Resources at EarlySalary, with 10+ years of international experience in HR across industries.
It is perfectly natural for a professional to fall for another if they’re working in the same office, or are spending a significant amount of time together. Open and vulnerable conversations are fairly likely to occur, and the more familiar they become with each other, the more potential there is for mutual attraction. While they may be frowned upon, relationships within an office setting are far from uncommon. Some partners even often end up getting married.
In this context, however, the HR function isn’t expected to remain out of the loop. Organizational policies, cultural sensitivities, etc – there are many factors influencing the HR functions’ role in managing professionals with a spouse in the same office. How can they approach this? Let’s look at some important aspects.
It is vital to maintain an environment where it is known that keeping a relationship or marriage secret is not in the interest of the company and can have larger implications. According to Sarah Churchman, head of diversity and inclusion and employee well being at PwC, the only way to manage relationships is for the couple to be totally out in the open. “If they don’t inform us, someone else in the department will. Not because they are necessarily behaving in an inappropriate manner, but simply because they may fear a problem with favoritism.”
Some enterprises have a policy in place allowing for managers to be demoted, transferred or even dismissed in the case of the manager being in a relationship with their direct report without disclosing the same. It is, therefore, essential that an office couple is made to sign out a disclosure form with the HR Department. This allows for a line of communication between the office and the parties involved and also serves as a formal notice of their relationship. It also prevents misinformation and rumor-mongering in the workspace which hampers productivity.
Different organizations have varying HR policies on how they deal with a spouse at the same office. If a company is strictly against work relationships, one of the spouses can be dismissed, though it would not be a popular move and discourage transparency. “You can’t legislate against office romances or indeed falling in love, and an outright ban would be totally unworkable,” says Churchman.
It is imperative for a company to have a policy on office relationships and furthermore ensure that all employees, especially spouses, get familiar with these and abide by them at all times during work hours. This includes coffee breaks, lunch breaks, business trips, etc.
The need to maintain a professional relationship between spouses in the same office space is vital. Often, the hardest battle in managing office relationships is inculcating the need to strike a balance between personal life and professional life. According to a research “on flirting at work” conducted by Amy Nicole Baker, an associate professor of psychology in University of New Haven, and an author on workplace romance papers, it was found that people who frequently witness other colleagues flirting often feel less valued by the company and have a decline in job satisfaction. This feeling of discomfort can also lead to many quitting their jobs. In order to prevent others from being uncomfortable and thus putting oneself under the radar.
Public displays of affection and flirtatious conversations can disrupt the working of the office and reek of unprofessionalism. It is essential to treat your spouse like a regular colleague within office hours and even in work parties, off-sites and other such events which are an extension to the office workspace.
In the case of a senior and subordinate getting married, the need for professionalism is critical in order to prevent conflict of interest. According to most office guidelines – it is necessary for the senior spouse not to be involved in the appraisal or evaluation of their partner. The two must not work together in the same department in order to curb the space for favoritism and nepotism within the workspace. There is also a potential threat to the security of confidential client information and the risk of information leaks.
To avoid the occurrence of favoritism, one spouse should be transferred to another department, and ideally, no couples should work together in the same department.
The unfortunate scenario of a married couple splitting up can have deep repercussions on their work ethic, their behavior in the office as well as the office environment itself. The disclosure form should specify what would happen to both the parties in case of this occurrence. The way two ex-partners are treated in the office also deserves attention. They might act in a more isolated nature and may be unable to maintain good performance. This situation is a nursing ground for potential blame-game and office politics. This difficult period of the employees’ life should be battled with care and acceptance. They might not need advice and might need someone to listen to them in order to clear their mind and concentrate during work hours. In case of poor performance, they should be nudged towards the direction of working better and given gentle reminders instead of indifferent statements like “Your divorce is not our problem.”
Perhaps an Employee Assistance Program to help deal with such traumatic instances is worthy of consideration from employers.