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Written by Marlijn van der BokMarlijn van der Bok

How to handle love in the workplace?

12 min read
How to handle love in the workplace?
Artwork by:Katya Simacheva
Love in the workplace. How do you deal with it? Falling in love with a colleague is wonderful, but it's also something to watch out for. Check out the do's and don'ts.

Colleagues spend a lot of time together. They work on jobs or projects together and often discuss their lives, plans, thoughts, and emotions. Colleagues share their interest in the profession and could admire each other for their professional qualities. They celebrate successes and experience setbacks. And after work, they travel home together or see each other during company outings and get-togethers. 

Before you know it, collegiality turns into friendship and friendship into love. And then the question arises: 

What should you do if you fall in love with a colleague?  

This article will provide tips and advice covering the following topics:

  • Is a relationship with a colleague allowed?
  • May an employer interfere with colleagues in love?
  • What to do if you fall in love with a colleague?
  • How do you keep things practical for other colleagues?
  • What if the relationship is over?

Love is wonderful, and falling in love with a colleague makes every working day a party. But it also brings dilemmas. 

For both employers and employees, a crush in the workplace is a topic that's worth taking a moment to have a closer look at. The first question that arises is whether an employer is actually allowed to interfere in the love life of their employees. 

May an employer prohibit love affairs between colleagues?

No, they may not. Relationships have to do with privacy and freedom of choice of partner. And that is a fundamental right. Your private life is yours, and your employer cannot ban the relationship.

May an employer interfere with colleagues in love?

Yes, they may. If the relationship has consequences in the workplace, the employer is allowed to interfere. For example, if the relationship between two employees affects the working atmosphere, leads to complaints from customers or colleagues or negatively affects work results. 

The employer is allowed to intervene if there is good reason. For example, by transferring a colleague to another department. This change, however, shouldn't adversely affect the colleague concerned.

The employer may draw up a code of conduct showing what is and isn't allowed in the company. Such a code of conduct may also outline what you should do if you have a relationship with a colleague. E.g. a duty to report, behaviour between lovers, modification of tasks etc.

Some employers include a provision in the contract to manage relationships in the workplace or refer to the collective labour agreement. 

What to do if you fall in love with a colleague?

Falling in love will happen to you. You have no choice or influence in that. But fortunately, you always have a choice on how to deal with it. 

Depending on the relationship between you and your colleague, falling in love can be one of two things: hardly an issue at all or, on the contrary, an awkward situation. Therefore, be aware of the different types of relationships that may be involved. 

What kind of relationship are we talking about?

By reading the following list, you will see that the working relationship is very much at play:

  • As an intern, you are in love with a permanent employee.
  • As a permanent employee, you are in love with an intern.
  • As a supervisor, you are in love with a subordinate.
  • As a subordinate, you are in love with a supervisor.
  • You are in love with someone with whom you work closely.
  • You are in love with someone with whom you have nothing to do work-wise.
  • As a freelancer / interim professional, you are in love with a client.
  • As a client, you are in love with a hired external contractor.

While each situation is unique, you could conservatively argue that relationships between colleagues are more readily accepted if, in an organisational chart, they are horizontally as far apart as possible and vertically close to each other. 

  • So, horizontally speaking, one would rather see a relationship between two colleagues who either rarely or never work together - and literally have lots of office doors between their workplaces - than between two close colleagues.
  • And vertically speaking, a relationship between a team leader and an employee would be more desirable than one between a CEO and an intern.

People are quick to judge, and the risks of #metoo situations are higher, in the event of major differences in power. 

Depending on the working relationship, there may be lots of furrowed brows. Colleagues may think someone is being favoured in terms of time, money or job content. In reality, lovers may actually disadvantage each other because they want to avoid the appearance of favouritism. 

7 helpful tips and considerations for love relationships in the workplace

So, falling in love with a colleague is really different from falling in love with that one cute guy in the pub or gym. Think before you love, shall we say. It is especially smart to keep your head in the game when love arises in the workplace. And yes, that is quite difficult when primal instincts take over. But the tips below are going to help you do that.

1. Do you think a relationship is possible?

Ask yourself whether a relationship with the colleague in question is likely to succeed. Clarify for yourself what you feel. Are you in love with the person for who they are or are you in love with the flirtation game that makes your working day less boring? Also, check if your colleague doesn't already have a partner. A relationship at work is challenging enough if the colleague is single and available. An affair with a married colleague is a real no-go and is bound to result in trouble.

Evaluate whether it is wise to start a relationship. If not, try to put a stop to your infatuation. 

The best way to do this is to limit contact as much as possible or break up completely if you can. What you pay attention to and nurture - grows. So, instead of turning your attention to that cute colleague, focus on other things. Your work, for instance. Finding positive distractions with friends and in hobbies also helps.

If you think a relationship is likely to succeed, read on. 

2. Check whether there are company rules about love in the workplace

Many companies have crystal clear policies around relationships at work. Employees encounter codes of conduct and regulations in this respect through the collective labour agreement, employment contract and/or company regulations. 

For example, a duty to report that requires you to report your relationship with your colleague to your employer. The protocol may also require the shortest-serving colleague to look for other work or be transferred internally. Make sure you're clear about the rules and procedures for relationships between colleagues. 

3. Examine whether the love is mutual

Another essential point to be clear on is whether the other person feels the same way about you. Often you have an idea, but sometimes you don't. 

Try to pick up on any signals that are there and - when you're reasonably confident - check with the other person to see whether you're right or not. In this case, words take precedence over actions. You want to prevent unwanted advances and inappropriate behaviour. So instead of just making a move, gently express your feelings to find out if your colleague also has a crush on you.

Expert tip

Don't let a crush ruin your career, and handle it wisely. Be aware that employers can apply aspects of employment law to inappropriate behaviour.

4. Get to know each other better outside work

At work, people are often the best version of themselves: social and alert, neatly dressed and well groomed. They're doing something they're good at and enjoy. 

How someone is outside working hours can be quite different. If the interest is mutual, meet up after work or at weekends. Get to know each other better in private. Are the butterflies still there, and have you got wrapped up in a relationship? Then do as the company rules dictate. 

5. Keep work and private life separate

Home is home, and work is work. In this case, home is the most important. Sure, you can talk about work over dinner, but avoid work being your only topic of conversation. At home, you want to unwind and refuel. 

Conversely, don't talk about private matters during office lunch. As a couple, leave your private lives at home. Going over a private matter or even settling an argument at work - among colleagues -  isn't professional. 

Keeping work and private affairs separate prevents a relationship with a colleague from affecting your work, performance and your relationship with other colleagues and your supervisor. 

6. How do you keep things practical for other colleagues?

In the workplace, it's often big news that two colleagues have found love. Workmates are often enthusiastic, but, of course, there can also be less positive reactions. In any event, make sure your relationship doesn't become a public secret. Be open to avoid gossip and rumours. 

Follow-up information is also important once the news becomes public. Depending on the working relationship between you and your colleague-sweetheart, colleagues will wonder how to proceed. Explain what arrangements have been made with superiors to avoid blurring between work and private life. 

Finally, being open about your relationship isn't a licence for unprofessional behaviour. Kissing colleagues in the workplace creates uncomfortable situations. But less obvious intimate behaviour can also be an eyesore for colleagues. So do your colleagues a favour, and save the passion for home. 

7. Prepare for the most dreaded moment: the break-up

Everyone starting a relationship hopes it lasts. However, you should also prepare yourself for the opposite scenario. What do you do when the relationship is over?

It is wise to think early on about your approach in the event of a relationship break-up. Who will then leave the company or apply for a transfer? Or will everyone keep their jobs and, if so, how will you deal with that? 

To avoid gossip, you want to be clear, even when ending a relationship. Inform colleagues, and tell your supervisor that you're no longer a couple. It is at least as important as during your relationship that you act professionally and not bring private circumstances into the workplace. And no, this isn't easy. Hence, tips 1 and 2 are so important.

Applying for a new job because of love in the workplace

Love in the workplace is regularly a reason for looking for a new job. Because you want to stop falling in love, because company rules dictate it or because you no longer want to work with your ex after a relationship break-up. 

When it's time for a new career path, a refreshed and up-to-date CV is indispensable.

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