Is it possible to end an office romance well?  

Thanks for your feedback on the case studies we’ve shared recently on bullying and dismissal. Both very tough topics, but both issues that can be better handled than they usually are, simply by adopting a more generous and open mindset.

As more people start to love working in a mwah. way, these case studies keep coming back to us, and we want to keep sharing them, especially the ones that address the issues that we’re asked about most often.

This one is about office romances, and it’s a case study where we were called to see if we could help navigate a romance gone bad.

Before we start, one small fact to set the context.

  • The fact is many of us meet our partners through work. Depending on which data we look at, that figure is somewhere between 10.5% (Washington Post Survey 2016) and 18.9% (Mic Survey through Google 2014). Although, it’s worth noting that studies are now showing that figure may be falling quite dramatically, proportionate to people who meet their partners via social media (American Psychological Society, 2015, study on how couples met from 1940 to 2010).

The bottom line is ‘work’ is just another social setting, where people meet and form friendships, so romance is just part of that reality.

But what if that reality goes wrong?

Well, there’s been some high profile cases recently, where consensual relationships have gone (very) bad, and ended up with devastating impacts for all involved (albeit, some people have been much worse impacted than others). Often, in these really high-profile cases, ‘power distance’ plays a role, (where one partner has significantly more power than the other). This was the case in the situation we were asked to help navigate.

The Back Story.     

The business is a medium size business of 150 people. It has a good culture, and its demographics lean towards ‘younger’, with the average age being 31. There are seven people on the LT (Leadership Team), all reporting to the CEO.

One of the LT had a year-long relationship with one of his direct team, which was not hidden and was generally known about but was never directly discussed. The relationships recently fell apart, with some animosity.

What happened.    

When the relationship broke down, there was an accusation of another employee now being involved with the LT member. This accusation was made public by the woman in the original relationship, at a team event after work. The accusation was denied at the time, and subsequently found to be untrue. The woman who made the accusation was under the influence of alcohol, left the function early, and had two days off work after the event. When she returned to work, she was embarrassed and at the end of a lot of office gossip.

And then.    

The original woman involved in the situation asked to speak to the CEO. This meeting took a few days to happen. Her request was to change teams to be away from the person she had just broken up with. She was embarrassed and quite emotional in the conversation with the CEO, and claimed she did not feel she would be fairly treated in her current team given the history of the relationship. The CEO felt very uncomfortable in the conversation and was not keen to ask or know any details of the relationship or its impact on the team. He simply said that he would consider moving the woman to another team.

Three weeks passed.

During that time, the CEO spoke only briefly to the LT member, and kept the conversation about work.

“Were the woman’s skills essential to the team?” They were.

“Was there someone else who could do the role?” There was, but they’d need training.

“Were there other roles in other teams the woman could do well?” There wasn’t an obvious match, but there were two possibilities that could be considered. In both cases, she was paid more than her peers doing those roles.

Finally, the CEO spoke to the woman.

He explained that he’d prefer she stay in her current team and that it would be best for her career if she did. He explained, that it was possible to move to another team, within a few months, but that she would take a small pay decrease if she moved into some roles.

The woman was very upset, and while she was still with the CEO, she did say that she felt she had been discriminated against, as she had paid the price for the relationship going sour, and the man was allowed to continue on without impact.

At that point.

The organisation needs to be clear on whether they have a discrimination case or a sexual harassment case.

Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Discrimination is defined as less favourable treatment based on a particular characteristic, such as gender, race, sexuality, or religion. It can be direct or indirect.

The organisation did not have a sexual harassment issue, nor was one claimed.

The organisation did not have a direct discrimination issue, as the woman and the man were both expected to have no impact on their employment, and the woman had actually sought a change of employment conditions.

Calling for help.

At this stage, the CEO called and asked us to help resolve the issue. This was based on his fear of the potential claim of discrimination and the impact on both staff morale (the workforce was 50/50 male/female) and also potential PR and reputational risks.


Having spoken to the CEO, the LT member, and the woman involved, we recommended the following as a course of action.

  1. Allow the woman to change teams. No one wants to work in a team where they are very uncomfortable, and/or embarrassed. No one does their best work in that circumstance.
  2. Allow the woman to hold her pay. The difference in pay was small, and given the circumstances, where the woman had less power and fewer opportunities than the LT member, it did feel like a reasonable outcome. We suggested the woman’s pay be held at that amount until her new peer group caught up, or until she was developed or promoted in a higher paid role, or until some time had passed, and she could comfortably return to her old role.
  3. We recommended that the LT member and the woman, have a good conversation about their longer-term working relationship. If both intended to stay, and wanted the workplace to return to a good healthy one for everyone, then both had a role to mend the relationship at work. They agreed, and we facilitated that conversation. It started awkwardly and uncomfortably. It progressed a little in the hour we spoke. It will take time but both were committed to making it work. It probably helped that this conversation had the benefit of being some six weeks after the break-up. The woman also wanted to talk to some other colleagues and mend some of the awkwardness that had happened after the team event. We thought this was a generous offer and would help to settle the situation down across the team.
  4. We recommended the CEO and LT member talk about the impact of the relationship, not only on the reputation of the LT member but also on the whole culture. The cold reality is that these things happen, but they can have an ongoing impact on the reputation of leaders, especially if it happens more than once, or even more often.
  5. We recommended that the CEO and the LT talk about the situation, as the gossip and ongoing conversations were somewhat damaging to team cohesion and healthy work culture. Leaders needed to know things were resolved, and they needed to quieten ongoing gossip so everyone felt comfortable again.

What happened then?

The CEO and the two people involved took the recommendations and gradually things settled down. The CEO undertook to follow up, quietly and informally, to make sure everyone was OK in a month.  

How this could have been avoided or lessened?

The situation got slightly out of hand but could have got a lot worse.

We talked with the CEO through some more proactive suggestions to avoid the same things happening in the future.
Here are some thoughts we gave the team.

  1. When an LT member is having a relationship with someone in their team, they ought to discuss it with the CEO. There needs to be an openness to the potential impact on the team and on individuals. If you choose to wear the Leadership jumper, you need to appreciate the power distance, and the potential impact the situation can have on your reputation.
  2. When the relationship began, there could have been a discussion between the LT member and the woman, to look at options. (Interestingly, it came out in our conversations that, even before the relationship soured, the team was uncomfortable that the boss was having a relationship with a peer, and they weren’t sure about trust and fairness being maintained).To hold trust and fairness in the circumstances, is often difficult, after all, we’re all human, and we want the best for the people we love, or we want to be perceived to be fair, so we overplay being ‘fair’ by disadvantaging the person they might be perceived to be favouring. Either way, it’s very tricky to have a relationship within a team. If possible, within the organisation, we recommend finding a different way to structure the team, especially if the relationship becomes serious. It needs to be a change that everyone can work with.
  3. When the relationship began and when the relationship broke up, the CEO and the LT member should have talked about the situation, so the LT could continue to manage and lead culture, and appreciate the impact on the whole team. You don’t need to overplay this, but you do need to discuss things honestly and be open to potential impacts.
  4. Without being too repetitive, we recommended that people not be naïve about relationships at work. There are two possible outcomes.  a) If they work out, that’s personally wonderful, but there are still ramifications on the team and the organisation. Do you need to change reporting lines to retain fairness and the perception of fairness? and b) If they don’t work out, in many circumstances, people are in a pain, and that often comes to work with them. They might be embarrassed, or angry, and that can impact their behaviour and their other work relationships.
  5. Finally, if you’re a Leader, especially a very senior one, you have to own that you personally impact the reputation of the company. It may well be a consensual relationship or true love, but you can’t ever leave the job title, role, or power distance outside the door, as long as the relationship is inside work.

In short, anywhere there are humans socialising, as we all do at work, there’s a potential for relationships. That’s not a bad thing (in fact, it can be a good thing), but the reality is that they do have an impact on work, work relationships, and culture. At the very least, you need to talk about that and be prepared to take actions that retain trust, respect, and fairness for everyone.