Is it okay to have an office romance?

December 2019

The one we’ve all been waiting for. The grand finale. A hotly debated topic, and in the wake of the McDonald’s story, particularly relevant. The Steve Easterbrook story hit global press and received attention from every angle. His case isn’t unique or shocking, but does pose interesting questions around power dynamics.


‘Raise your hands if you’ve ever had what you’d class as an office romance?’ …

…definitely considerably more hands in the air than not now.

The average person spends 90,000 hours of their lifetime at work. That roughly equates to a third of your life. So, can we be surprised that romantic (and sometimes less romantic) relationships are formed in this space? Probably not.


Proximity and time

Traditionally work isn’t the place that you’d meet a partner, and we’re always told to keep our personal and work lives separate. That being said, being in this furtive environment can bring out reactions and feelings that may not surface in the ‘real world’. This kind of setting can breed a lot of false starts, and cause upset (which can lead to uncomfortable conversations).

A recent study by totaljobs found that 22% of people meet their romantic partner at work. Contrast that with the 13% that meet online, 18% that meet through friends and 10% who stumble across each other on nights out. Work is the clear winner when it comes to coupling up.


Privacy and secrecy

Workplaces are home to every type of relationship dynamic you can imagine. From friendships and frenemies, right through to the more challenging encounters. When you add in the complication of a potential romantic relationship to the workplace, you immediately open yourself up for scrutiny, comment and gossip. Most glances, exchanges and vibes can be felt from the team around you too, so there’s a good chance that they’ll know something’s going on before you spill the beans (if you ever do). According to totaljobs, 76% of colleagues tend to keep their relationship hush-hush, while only 3% ever confess to HR.


Now, that’s where this gets interesting.

Companies and employees will have a differing stance on whether relationships are permitted, and some will even build this into policies. Beyond that, it’s the people you work with and interact with daily. How can the relationships impact them? What happens if it all goes wrong? Both very valid questions when thinking about the longevity of said relationship, and whether a fall out could spark the need to move jobs. Also, it’s a lot of weight to put on someone’s shoulders if you’re expecting them to carry your relationship secret for you. Make sure you’re certain if that’s the ask from your team.


Not always a recipe for disaster

That being said, it’s not all bad. I guarantee you know more than one individual who met their current partner through work. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but indisputably sometimes it does. Sarah in the audience was lucky enough to find love at work, but said their relationship only really began to grow and evolve when their work lives split. So, does that beg the question… Work is an okay place to meet someone, but not the place to let a relationship blossom? Should the onus really be on one of them to leave? The jury’s out on this one and it comes back to personal preference and not breaching any rules enforced by your organisation.


Positions of power

Workplace relationships take different forms, but a problematic structure comes through when senior and junior members come together, especially when either has direct reporting responsibility.

Steve Easterbrook’s case made headlines, not because of its unique nature, but because he had put the employee relationship rule in place and then violated it. McDonald’s did what most employers would do, and terminated him from the business. But, often when these relationships are formed, the junior member can receive favouritism or be forced to quit when things don’t work out.

The conversation shifted back to our world, placing Boris Johnson in the spotlight for a minute. A man who hasn’t been able to tell us how many children he has. Undertones of ‘I don’t care about Boris but I do care about what it means about transparency’ reverberated through the space.


The upshot is, office romances can be successful but should be approached with caution. Avoid direct reports and line managers to reduce complications and putting anyone in difficult positions. Maintaining a functional and professional environment is key, because you’re there to get the job done after all.


That’s it for the Fora x Tortoise collaboration, but you can still catch-up on the ThinkIns that you’ve missed. We’ll also be releasing this full discussion as a podcast episode very soon, so keep an eye on our social channels to listen. Looking for more topics to get stuck into? To see what other ThinkIns are on the horizon and to listen to past ThinkIns, click here.