Managing People

Like a Boss: How do I manage employees who are clearly in a romantic relationship?

February 14, 2020
November 7, 2023
Jennifer Romolini
Lattice Team

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

I just found out (through some office gossip, not directly from the source) that two of my employees are dating or in love or at least in a romantic relationship of some sort and now I don’t know what to do — should I address it? Mind my own business? Tell people not to gossip about it? Our team is fairly small and I’m afraid of how this might impact them. What’s my role here as a manager? 

Not Ready for Romance

Dear Not Ready,

Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is in the office air! This is normal and usual and to be expected! In fact, nearly 60 percent of American workers say they’ve engaged in an interoffice romance at some point in their professional lives, making affairs, hookups, and even more conventional LTRs among coworkers far more common than you’d think. How you address this particular tryst (and the trysters involved) depends on a number of factors, all of which will make you feel like somewhat of a killer of joy.

The first is your company’s policies surrounding office relationships. Do you have one? If so, does it emphasize consent? Does it distinguish between a consenting romantic relationship and unwanted sexual advances? And does it take a clear position on how employees are to behave if — even after initial consent — one of them doesn’t want to continue the relationship? Is all of this covered in some kind of comprehensive sexual harassment policy? If it’s not, now is a good time to seek out the help of your lovely HR team to help build this into an employee manual that’s given to new hires on day one.

The second factor is employee rank — does your company have a policy about managers dating subordinates? It should! There are far too many potential grey areas and risks of serious abuses of power and/or favoritism built into these kinds of romantic dynamics, which is why they’re banned by most organizations. If the liaison in question is between a boss and a direct report, you’re best taking the issue directly to HR. 

And if your company does not currently have any rules about how to handle employees in love, you may want to use your new discovery as an opportunity to make sure rules are put into place right this second.  For example, if the organization is office-relationship tolerant, you may want to set a rule about no overt affection in the office, so, at the very least, non-lovey-dovey co-workers don’t have to suffer through Schmoopie-level overtures when they’re just trying to get through the workday.   

Once you have some rules in place, a solid next move is to not allow the gossip to fester and instead to address the rumor straight on by setting up a meeting to discuss what’s happening with the couple. In this meeting you should:

  1. Inform the employees of the company relationship policy.
  2. Talk about how, if the rumors are true, the employees need to keep the relationship away from work and stay professional.
  3. Be normal, light-hearted, and human and make sure the employees know that you’d like to be transparent, open, and keep communicating going forward. Let them know that you’re not there to be punitive, but just need to protect staff equilibrium and keep everything above board. 
  4. After they leave the meeting, remind yourself that love exists, that you believe in it, that you are not a robot, or a human buzzkill, and that your job — and what you need to do this job well — does not define you.