This week, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired for having a relationship with an employee, which though consensual was against the company’s policy. The ‘no office romance’ policy is far from unusual — more than 75% of companies ban relationships between an employee and someone in their chain of command, while other companies enforce a total ban on sexual relationships of any kind at work. Policies such as McDonald’s are seemingly put in place to guard against favouritism and abuse of power. While measures to create a work culture where a boss can never take advantage of an employee are vital and necessary, the truth is that romances between colleagues aren’t always as clear-cut.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says workplace romances are a fact of life and therefore cannot be banned outright, given how much time we spend with our coworkers (the average person spends about 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime) and also because everyone has a fundamental right to a private life.
According to a recent TotalJobs survey of over 5,795 people, you are more likely to meet your partner at work than in a bar, online or even through friends, with 22% of us meeting a partner in the workplace. But actually managing a romance in an office is tricky. Seventy-six percent of people in office romances keep them quiet, for a variety of reasons. We asked young people who have all had office romances to tell us why they kept quiet…
Zoe*, a 25-year-old who works in media, dated a guy in the same company but different department for about eight months and deliberately kept it quiet to “avoid overcomplicating it” and “in a bid to keep separate personal lives to work”. While work itself didn’t interfere, it did bring more traditional relationship problems into the office. “We worked on separate floors and had trust issues. I ended up catching him being unfaithful and he never came back… Haven’t spoken to him or seen him since.”
“I didn’t want the first thing people learned about my personal life to be that I was dating my coworker.” Maria, 23
Maria*, a 23-year-old research assistant based in Berlin, dated a coworker in the same role for about three months until he had to move away, and struggled with how to tell her colleagues. “We didn’t announce it or anything — I didn’t want to presume people would care and it felt like a bit much for a new relationship. Besides, how would you even do it — WhatsApp chat? [Over] cake in the kitchen?” She was careful to check the local law (in Germany you are not required to disclose an office romance) but struggled with how to disclose it while retaining professionalism, especially as a new team member. “I didn’t want the first thing people learned about my personal life to be that I was dating my coworker, or doubt my commitment to my job.” People sussed it out eventually though, especially as they would arrive and leave together, and take their lunch breaks at the same time.
While the relationship ending is bittersweet, in Maria’s case she found it saved her from one of the pitfalls of office romances: that you see each other all the time. “I think [the relationship] was worth it, but long term it might have been difficult if we had broken up for other reasons and had to continue working together. It also means you literally see your partner ALL DAY if you sleep over, which can be a bit much for a budding relationship.”
Grace*, who works in media, couldn’t bear being office gossip and so kept her relationship secret for five months. “We worked in different departments so no one was that suspicious. I ended up breaking it off with him; he wanted it to get serious but I just wasn’t really feeling it. He was really, really hurt though and took it quite badly, pleading with me to make it work.” Keeping it quiet eventually backfired when they were moved around the office. “Two months later I was moved over to his department (one I longed to work in) and was given a desk RIGHT NEXT TO HIM. It was awful and so uncomfortable for both of us. He resigned about two months later and left the company.”
Efforts to avoid gossip can be in vain when you’re in such close quarters. Barnaby, a 27-year-old charity worker, ended up spending every day with a guy who would explicitly flirt with him (“He’d be quite touchy-feely; a lot of arms around my waist, back strokes, hip-to-hip contact — and naturally, like any human with blood in their veins, I took it as big-time flirting”) but then, when he asked said guy out, he said no. “In any normal situation, it probably would have stopped there — the man would’ve got the hint and been sensitive to my feelings, but it only intensified. He continued to act more touchy and more inappropriate. We’d go on nights out with other people and he’d be picking me up in the air or grinding on me with his semi-erect penis. Every time, without fail, he’d push it right to the edge before pulling out the Rejectville ticket or making out with someone else in front of me. All of this while knowing full well that I fancied him.” The mixed messages were compounded by the fact that the guy in question would talk to other colleagues about him, pleading ignorance or claiming “I was overly keen and it was me that wouldn’t get the message. But he would still act the same.” Despite keeping this personal part of his life on the down low, gossip still spread, with some believing the guy, not Barnaby’s version of events.
“Most people can come to work and get away from personal stuff … Working with someone you’re in a relationship with leaves little room for space and clarity.” Zoe, 25
For the most part, when people are on equal footing within the company, whether or not it’s worth starting a relationship at work depends on the people involved. For Zoe, it wasn’t: “It’s easy to get distracted and there’s a higher chance energy at work can impact on how your relationship is going. Whereas most people can come to work to get away from personal stuff, working with someone you’re in a relationship with leaves little room for space and clarity.”
This is, however, complicated when power is at play. But whether current company policies such as that at McDonald’s are useful in protecting people is up for debate — arguably, more should be done to change the culture of sexual harassment instead of corporations policing consensual personal lives. As Barnaby puts it, these policies should be subjective to the work but “life is too short. If you fall in love with each other, you can’t control that — workplace or no workplace.”
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Originally published at https://www.refinery29.com.