How To Have A Workplace Relationship That Doesn't Crash And Burn

The CEO of McDonald’s has been forced to resign after his relationship with an employee. Can office romances ever be drama-free?

We spend most of our lives at work, so it’s no surprise that many of us end up dating a colleague – or at least sneaking a cheeky kiss at the Christmas party.

One in five (22%) adults in a relationship met their partner through work, according to a survey of more than 5,000 people by TotalJobs, and two thirds of workers (66%) have either dated a colleague or would consider it.

However, it’s not always smooth-sailing – or even HR-approved. Steve Easterbrook, the chief executive of McDonald’s, has been fired this week after having a “consensual relationship” with an employee – the company has a hard-and-fast-rule that managers should not date direct or indirect subordinates.

lankogal via Getty Images

Can an office romance ever work out – at least without causing some major drama? And what are the rules to live by if you’re chasing happily ever after?

Alessandra Carriban, 24, a digital PR executive from Brighton, has been dating a co-worker for four months now, since initiating a conversation about Game of Thrones on Slack and discovering there was a real connection. “We both felt that the relationship had a lot of potential, otherwise we wouldn’t have taken the risk of dating someone at work. I’m sure it can get messy!” she tells HuffPost UK.

lankogal via Getty Images

Carriban and her boyfriend have established some ground rules for keeping things professional at work. “We decided no PDA, as we felt that would make people around us feel uncomfortable and was just inappropriate for work, but we do come in holding hands and we make our lunches together,” she says. They’ve also swapped Slack conversations for Whatsapp.

“I really think this one is a keeper, but we agreed from the beginning that if it weren’t to work out, we would be respectful of each other and break up on the best terms possible.” From early on, their colleagues and managers knew they were together and have been genuinely supportive of the relationship.

In contrast Luke Walker*, 31, from Essex, had a bumpy ride through his own workplace relationship. Luke, who works in customer service, was a new employee on his company’s six-week induction training when he met his partner, who is a few years older than him and was one of the mentors.

Their company has a strict no-dating within the office rule, but the pair started flirting, then texting, before “one thing led to another” after work drinks. They started to date in secret, only telling a few close colleagues before it “all came out” around a year later.

“‘I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we did.”

- Luke, 31

After a chat with his boss, he was moved team and departments. “The new role made me completely miserable. It wasn’t what I enjoyed doing or wanted to do,” he tells HuffPost UK. “This in turn made my partner miserable and guilty. I stuck with it even though things were tough. It put a strain on our relationship.”

Things improved when Luke was promoted a year later into a more favourable role. “We are still together, now living together and still employed by the same company but doing completely different things,” he says. “I’m grateful that we met at work, but work policies certainly didn’t help for large parts.”

Now a manager himself, Luke has agreed to support two of his team who have told him they’re in a relationship. “They came to me and I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we did where work damages their mental health in any way, so I have taken the approach that no matter what the policy is, as long as it doesn’t impact their performance, it shouldn’t matter.”

lankogal via Getty Images

Luke’s advice is to ignore those who tell you not to “take work home with you” when things get frustrating. “Yes it wasn’t ideal to go home and then moan about work,” he says, “especially when we were in the same department, but I think people need to realise that in the long run that is healthy.”

But things didn’t go so well for Michelle Sands*, 28, from Newcastle, when she had a “whirlwind” romance with a colleague after a staff night out. The pair, who work in marketing, decided not to tell their colleagues as things progressed, but this only added more strain when the relationship started to fall apart.

“We found it difficult to separate work life from personal life”

- Michelle, 28

“Work was very rarely left at the door and thinking about the next steps of the relationship became increasingly difficult if neither of us changed jobs. It was as if we were in each other’s pockets constantly and we found it difficult to separate work life from personal life,” Michelle recalls. “Needless to say we ended up splitting and it was absolutely horrendous at work in the beginning. More so because no one knew and we wanted to remain professional.”

Working in the same office was “incredibly awkward”, especially if Michelle and her ex were put on a joint project by their unknowing colleagues. “After a while and lots of ups and downs, from trying to be friends to ignoring each other, we somehow managed to find some balance,” she says. “Definitely not the office romance I thought it would be!”

For those wondering if it’s all worth it, however, Brian Tea, 59, from Surrey and wife Cheryl, 55, had a very happy ending. The pair met 34 years ago at London Transport’s remanufacturing factory in Chiswick – Brian worked in the factory and Cheryl in the office – and are still “very much in love”.

“I stood in for a colleague one day and had to take some data – it was all on paper in those days – to the office,” Brian says. “I walked in and handed the documents to Cheryl and I know it sounds cheesy but it was love at first sight.”

Neither Brian nor Cheryl plucked up the courage to ask the other out, but one of Cheryl’s friends clocked the spark and passed her phone number onto Brian.

“I called her that evening and we spent over an hour talking. I made the trip down to Kent [where Cheryl lived with her parents] the following Sunday and we then spent every weekend either at her parents’ or mine. Within a couple of months we were engaged. It just felt so right.”

Despite both being nervous about the reaction from their colleagues, everyone at the factory was supportive. “I’m so glad we took the plunge,” he says. “My life has been complete for 34 years and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

*Some names have been changed to give interviewees anonymity.