Workplace Culture

The Last Word: Love at Work? We Can Work It Out

By Rick Bell

Jan. 27, 2015

There are some who would argue otherwise, but believe me, I’m a romantic at heart.

Valentine’s Day. Crème-filled chocolates and deep red roses and mushy cards; bring on the romantic film fest featuring “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Titanic” and “Dirty Dancing.” Hey, Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” isn’t silly after all.

But silly love-gone-wrongs at work? I’ve seen them, andif you have an anything-goes policy at work regarding office romance, if you think it’s OK to let more than the kid gloves slip off during office hours, then you better brace yourself for a few slings as well as Cupid’s tainted arrows. Office romances have this nasty habit of heading south. It’s no warm-weather vacation either.

Agreed, there are exceptions. A very good friend worked in an office with a strict no-dating policy. Naturally, he met a woman and they hit it off, had a secret romance and are still married to this day.

I’ve also witnessed the dark side of office romances. You know, the one where it starts with birds merrily chirping outside the window, shoeless footsies under the conference table and goo-goo eyes above it. The totally annoying, eternally happy intradepartment couple — until a month later when they are still annoying, but certainly not happy and definitely not a couple anymore.

The goo-goo eyes turn to icy glares that seemingly could freeze the sun; once-playful footsies have become vicious roundhouse kicks intended for the ex that unfortunately cracks your shinbone instead.

The thrill is indeed gone. Endless love? Try endless agony. That silly love is now so downright stupid that any love song McCartney ever sung is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Yeah, they’re out of love and the rest of us are out of our minds wishing this would just go away. I’ve lived through some chaotic, stressful and emotional work environments, but the office breakup ranks among the worst of the worst.

There’s the uncomfortable attempts to rally allies, the division of loyalties, the distrust and dissolution of friendships, and I won’t even go into the accusations of stalking outside of work. The staff is complaining that you have to do something … anything … to make it better. The atmosphere is unbearable, and frankly it’s impossible to disagree.

You try to manage the situation. You talk to them both together and individually about professionalism, there’s a job to be done and they need to focus on work rather than each other. Of course, that’s easier said than done. In my experience, as the weeks pass, the department ultimately settles into an uneasy, South Korea-North Korea-like armistice.

To paraphrase sportscaster Dan Patrick you can’t stop love at work; you can only hope to contain it. Maybe it ends up in 30 years of blissful harmony. Or, you live in an unrelenting hell.

Or, once a year — right about this time in fact, since love and random hookups are in the air — revisit your employee handbook. The courts say it’s OK to have dating policies. Some organizations implementethics and conduct codes and a business policies that negate the need for a dating policy. Just let it be known that you work in a professional environment and people are expected to act as such. Tell them to use common sense and maintain honorable intentions.

Most importantly, communicate it. Route the policy via a mushy Valentine’s card with a gift certificate for a nearby chocolatier or florist. Print little sayings on candy hearts. Communicate your policy — or nonpolicy — and let the breezes of love blow where they will. Speak now, and don’t hold your peace, because once you reiterate the policy, you’re a step closer to celebrating the swooning successes and containing the reality of a soured workplace relationship. And, maybe, just maybe, the birds will chirp and McCartney songs will sound good again.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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