The break-up of a relationship is bad enough, without the added complication of having to see the person every day, risking your emotional wellbeing, job performance and professional identity, potentially damaging the dynamics of your team, and breaching company policies. Many employers will have experienced the fall-out of a workplace romance gone bad – when two colleagues have been in a consensual romantic or sexual relationship that ends. In this month’s newsletter, we interview psychologist Ruth Byrne, who studied the consequences of failed workplace romances as part of her Masters of Organisational Psychology. We consider what employers can do to minimise the damage, and to help the two former partners – and all of their colleagues – get over the break-up.
Byrne had always been interested in romantic relationships between colleagues, and its effect on wellbeing and workplace dynamics. Discovering a paucity of research on the topic, she conducted a qualitative study of failed workplace romances using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. “Essentially it’s asking people to discuss what their lived experience was and then extracting themes from their accounts”, Byrne explains. Byrne’s participants had been in a significant romantic relationship with a colleague that had ended.
Consequences Of The Breakup For The Participants
From her interviews with participants, Byrne’s study uncovered some key themes, one being emotional devastation. “For participants, the emotional fallout of the break-up was absolutely devastating. … That feeling as though your heart is literally going to break and asking yourself ‘Am I ever going to be able to move on emotionally?’. Some described it as the most difficult period of their lives.”
In many break-up scenarios that play out in the workplace, the challenge for the two employees is how to control their emotions at work. Byrne notes that “in most of the cases the relationships were hidden from colleagues”, so the two employees felt the need to control their emotions at work, partly to protect their professional reputations and partly to protect their personal reputations, particularly when the relationships were extra marital. Byrne explains:
“Part of controlling emotions at work is the importance of remaining ‘professional’. There’s a body of research out there on displays of emotion in the workplace and what it seen as acceptable. The research indicates that negative emotion, such as anger and sadness, and particularly crying, isn’t acceptable at work. Where masculine norms of emotional containment prevail, to be seen as over emotional and out of control potentially undermines the employee’s professional identity.”
Of further detriment to the professional identity of women involved in a workplace romance is the sexual double-standard. “A woman involved in a workplace romance may be given negative labels like slut, seductress or ‘cougar’ (if she is older than her former partner), and accused of using her sexual power to gain favour with males in the organisation. On the other hand, men may be forgiven – ‘he’s sowing his wild oats’ or ‘he can’t help it’ – or even congratulated for having bedded a woman within the organisation, particularly if she is attractive. For this reason, Byrne explains, “professional identity and threats to professional reputation were significant issues for many of the women” in the study.
The participants’ ability to ‘compartmentalise’ their professional and personal lives was important. “That compartmentalising of the personal and the professional was really very important in maintaining their professionalism, to the point where it’s almost like they are living parallel lives. In one circumstance the former relationship partners were working in a team situation, in different states. They’d be on the phone, in conference calls working through project issues, all strictly business. Then they would leave the office, and they’d be crying on the phone to each other for hours.”
Byrne explained that for some individual employees to compartmentalise their personal and professional lives, “it necessitated a psychological shift of being able to say ‘Okay, I am now the manager and I’m playing the role of a manager. The manager keeps their emotions under control, they don’t cry’. In essence, embodying professional archetypes about what a manager is and what professional behaviour in the workplace is. Being able to keep those boundaries really helped people cope with the situation”. Byrne suggests that the absence of anger made it easier for participants to maintain boundaries, yet “to be able to flick that switch and say ‘I am now the professional person, not the relationship person who is angry or hurting’ requires a lot of emotional energy.”
In Worklogic’s cases, we have seen far-reaching consequences of colleagues breaking up, including criticism and defamation of the former partner on Facebook, violent conduct at or after work functions, and misuse of power in the workplace in retribution. The damage is rarely confined to the two employees who were in the relationship.
A relationship break-up can also have a detrimental effect on work performance, whether or not the former partners work together. Byrne says that a break-up can lead to “a decrease in motivation and an inability to concentrate”, due to the grieving process, and this can be heightened if the former partner is often in close proximity. Conversely, “for the people who were able to continue performing well, retaining a strong sense of work self esteem and professional identity seemed to protect them against some of the negative impact of the relationship fall out, partly because “Their professional pride was intact”.
Consequences Of The Breakup For The Co-workers, The Team And The Workplace
The breakdown of an office romance often affects co-workers, and can be socially divisive in a workplace. In Byrne’s study, participants described being excluded from work functions, being the subject of gossip and innuendo, and feeling left out of social events and everyday conversations. Co-workers often ‘take sides’ and find it difficult to retain a constructive professional and social relationship with both parties. Occasionally one of the former partners will choose to avoid the social aspect of work, because they don’t want to hear news about their former partner, or “They didn’t want to be in the situation where they had to appear that everything was okay, even though it wasn’t”, Byrne said.
More dangerous is where one of the former partners deliberately harms the other, for example by discussing intimate aspects of the relationship and break-up with colleagues including lascivious sexual details. This potentially causes huge problems in terms of the employees’ reputations and their relationships with co-workers. In Byrne’s study, “For some study participants, their relationships and reputations with co-workers were virtually destroyed, making their professional position untenable. Ultimately they chose to leave the organisation”.
Another risk identified in Byrne’s study is conflict of interest, both for the individual employees and for their organisations.
“One manager whose former relationship partner reported to her described being in a meeting where he was asking for time off. She’d communicated to the group that during this period there could be no time off due to workload issues, and then he comes to her saying ‘I want time off during this period’ and she was furious. She was sitting there in a meeting with him and she said it took every ounce of concentration to not allow her anger to show through. Despite her anger, she was able to maintain her professionalism and integrity through enormous self awareness and emotional control”.
Employers should ensure that employees maintain integrity in their decision-making, particularly when their decisions can affect each other’s work performance, administration (such as leave requests), performance management and progression within the company. Both during and after the relationship, the employees should be formally directed not to allow their personal biases to interfere with their professionalism. After the relationship has ended, there is a heightened risk of discrimination and bullying claims.
What Can The Employer Do To Minimise The Fall-Out And Assist The Two Employees?
1. Enable The Employees To Have Some Distance From Each Other, If Possible
Byrne advises: “In self help literature regarding break-ups, one of the main things advised is do not contact your former partner. Do not drive past their house. Remove photos, remove reminders of this person. It’s very hard if you work in the same workplace, as you’re seeing them all the time”. Byrne explains that stimuli, whether visual or audio, will trigger an emotional reaction, so every time the two employees interact, the painful or destructive emotions are potentially reactivated. “One participant described the emotional pain of continually having to see her former partner as how she would imagine a drug addict might feel upon going into rehab, and being forced to see the drug dangled in front of their face all the time but not being able to have it”. Proximity was a major theme that emerged from Byrne’s study, with physical avoidance of the former partner utilised as a coping strategy by participants. As a result, it may be appropriate for the employer to facilitate a temporary separation of the two employees, ideally with their consent. Separating the two employees, even by one floor or into a different work area, might make it easier for them to move on emotionally. “Where you can, try to reduce proximity. Depending on the size and structure of the organisation, you might be able to move them so they’re not crossing paths, or they don’t have to work together anymore. By minimising their interactions on a day to day basis, it might facilitate better outcomes for everyone involved”. The employer must take care not to cause detriment to either party, such as demoting one of them, removing responsibilities without their agreement, or making it difficult for them to achieve their work goals. Some employees may self-select and leave the organisation, but employers must not discriminate against one or both of the employees because of their relationship or its break-up.
2. Manage Conflicts Of Interest In Advance
As noted above, Byrne’s study identified conflict of interest as a clear risk where two employees are in a romantic relationship.
Byrne recommends that employers have clear policies about conflict of interest which explicitly address appropriate and inappropriate relationships in the workplace, in the context of power dynamics and hierarchical reporting structures.
Conflicts of interest should always be disclosed early, and managed openly, with the supervision of a more senior manager. This is particularly the case where one partner is reporting to the other, granting leave or other administrative requests, or in control of the other’s performance reviews and promotions within the company.
Byrne notes that part of the problem is both the employees and the employer understanding the nature of the relationship, and determining at what stage a relationship has started. Byrne gave the example: “Yes, we went away, we were working on a project interstate, we got drunk one night, we had sex, we’ve had sex maybe three or four times over the past month. I’m married, she’s engaged…At what stage might this be a relationship the participants are willing to disclose to their employer?”.
3. Educate Employees About Standards Of Behaviour Inside And Outside The Workplace
For many employees, flirtatious behaviour and drunken banter at a work function can lead to sexual conduct that is either wanted, or unwanted (sexual harassment). If employers do not make their expectations clear – both in terms of what behaviour is acceptable, and when and where the policies apply – staff will have no guidance, and employers will struggle to police any bad behaviour.
This is particularly important when two employees have been in a sexual relationship. As Byrne noted, “a relationship break-up plays out in the real world, outside of the workplace, according to a completely different set of rules than how it can or should play out at work”. She explains that non-threatening ‘pursuit behaviour’, such as repeated phone calls, text messages or emails, or other attempts to win the person back, may be socially sanctioned in the outside world. Of course, in the workplace, this could amount to sexual harassment, bullying or other forms of misconduct.
Employers must make clear that at work, including work functions, interstate conferences, work at remote locations, and during travel itself (on planes, in airline lounges), the same standards of behaviour are expected. Employers must also make clear that sexual harassment is never acceptable, even when the two people were previously in a relationship.
Ruth Byrne suggests that policies and education around professional conduct include some advice for employees concerning the risks of entering into a relationship with a colleague, “Most of the participants fell into a workplace relationship with limited consideration of the consequences. Many regretted their lack of foresight. For some, the romance derailed their lives and careers”. Education could include the potential negative ramifications of workplace romance, the laws of sexual harassment and bullying, and how to handle interpersonal conflict.
4. Offer Mediation
At Worklogic we are commonly asked to run a mediation between two employees who were previously in a relationship. The aim of the mediation is for the employees to ‘own’ the situation, to take responsibility for complying with professional boundaries, and to negotiate together the ground rules for how they will interact in future. Byrne agrees that this is a very constructive move by employers:
“Where there are shared interests, the employees need to be able to sit down and work out how can they can meet them. To be able to offer a mediation … gives them a forum to be able to sit together and respectfully talk about the relationship ending and the way forward”.
5. Offer Support And Counselling To The Two Employees
All employers should offer some sort of employee assistance program or counselling. An EAP service, or even a confidential chat with HR (if that sort of relationship exists), can go a long way to assisting the two employees through their break-up. This may seem beyond the call of duty for the employer – it is, in effect, assisting the employees with their personal problems – however it is for the good of the workplace as a whole.
Byrne says that counselling can assist the employees to manage their own emotional reactions and also to understand and apply personal and professional boundaries in the workplace. Where anger at a former partner is an issue, it can help teach employees “how to calm themselves down, and how to walk away rather than allow something to escalate”.
Specialised training can even be offered to highly valued employees. The interventions Byrne suggests include “education around anger management, cognitive behavioural therapy, and relaxation techniques”. Teaching the employee how to manage their emotional response might include “going for a walk around the block, ringing a friend, taking a piece of paper and going and sitting in a coffee shop and writing it all down … rather than allowing it to come out in the workplace”. These techniques may seem obvious or simple, but many people are not used to experiencing overwhelming emotion at work, employers can assist them with strategies to deal with it.
6. Expect, But Manage, A Dip In Performance
We all know that a personal crisis can have an impact on work performance. Employers should be prepared for this, and manage it sensitively. Byrne notes that “motivation and the ability to concentrate might decrease for some period, affecting the employee’s performance”. She recommends that employers respond empathically and demonstrate their understanding through offering additional support. This might include giving the employees a grace period, such as an extension on a project, but at the same time “it’s important to reiterate behaviour and performance expectations, and the boundaries around the personal and the professional”.
As our interview with Ruth Byrne has shown, there are many things that employers can do to assist colleagues through a break-up, which will contain the risk of it damaging work performance, integrity of decision-making, social interactions and workplace culture. Many are proactive, and others can be implemented once the failed romance has come to the employer’s attention. Break-ups are never easy, but employers can do a lot to ease the pain, for the sake of everyone in the workplace.
Many thanks to Ruth Byrne for her participation.