Workplace doctor: How to handle personal relationships in a professional environment

Managers have to be clear about job expectations and consequences if performance is negatively impacted for any reason

Genetic counseling advisor looking at couple in office
Powered by automated translation

I am the manager of a large team of salespeople at a major outlet in Dubai. Recently, I have become aware of a relationship between two members that seems to be impacting their work. While I do not want to ban them from having a relationship - they have until recently both been exemplary members of staff. How do I resolve this delicate issue?

JT, Dubai

Although personal relationships may be viewed differently by different people, generations, religions and cultures, consideration should be given to what is seen to be both respectful and lawful of the local culture and religion where one resides.

Internationally, it is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of people have dated a co-worker and that up to one third of these work relationships have resulted in marriage.  Alarming statistics for some, and given that the line between professional and personal lives are becoming thinner, maybe not that surprising for others. Given that we spend, on average, one third of our lives at work whilst working longer hours than ever before, it may be understandable that work is increasingly becoming the primary social environment that many find themselves in.

Traditionally, relationships at work have been frowned upon for various reasons.  Many take the view that the workplace is a professional environment where it is important to maintain professionalism at all times.  This is particularly relevant to work relationships, as they can be a real distraction not only for the parties involved, but also for their co-workers.  Other than potentially affecting productivity, work relationships can cause additional strain, embarrassment and perceptions of favouritism or discrimination.

Depending on who is involved, workplace relationships can change the dynamics of an entire organisation.  At the very least, they tend to generate excessive gossip and can complicate important collaboration and trust, necessary for effective teams and cross functional relations. It can also affect decision making, where the involved parties are likely to put each other’s needs before that of the company.  Furthermore, work relationships are not limited to co-workers and can impact relations with vendors, competitors or other external stakeholders.


Read more:

Workplace doctor: How to tackle staff stealing from the store till

Workplace Doctor: Upwards management requires a tactful approach

Workplace doctor: Favourtism perception a delicate issue to be handled with care


From a different perspective, experts have more recently found that workplace friendships are good for employees and as such, for organisations.  This is especially true for Generation Y, who value working with like-minded people that they get on well with.  Friendships at work can increase productivity and reduce employee turnover.

According to a 2013 survey in Australia, good relationships with co-workers were more motivating for people to stay in their current job (67 per cent) compared to job satisfaction (63 per cent) and surprisingly, their salary (46 per cent).  A workplace is a community, and a closeness amongst staff members can be a competitive advantage for an organisation.

Although, personal relationships are more complicated, they can be viewed in much the same way.  Rather than resisting the phenomena, employers are best placed to have a clear policy that governs personal relationships at work. The focus should be on creating a positive work environment for all.  Employees must not allow a personal relationship to influence their conduct at work.

Be clear about job expectations and consequences if performance is negatively impacted for any reason.  It is also best to have a rule that prohibits an employee from supervising a person they are in a relationship with.  Include a requirement to disclose any relationship that may give rise to a conflict of interest.

How may you handle this situation going forward?  As you and others have noticed behavioural changes, it is time to address the situation with these individuals.  You mention that they have both been exemplary members of staff until recently, so appeal to their professionalism at work.

Communicate your concerns that their personal actions are causing professional issues.  Specify that personal lives should be conducted outside of the workplace, and that romantic gestures are not appropriate at work.  Help them to establish some boundaries  – for instance, not to spend too much time on their own, agreeing not to use terms of endearment, or be seen to make physical contact with each other.

Doctor’s Prescription:

Maintain an atmosphere of trust by respecting their right to a private life, whilst ensuring your right to protect the interests of the business and fellow staff members.  Residing in the UAE, they also need to be aware of the laws of the country and respectful of the local culture and customs regarding all forms of relationships.

Yolande Basson is an executive coach and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education – Middle East