Difficult Conversations: When Personal Relationships at Work Become a Problem  

Hi, I’m Nicola from The People Mentor.  

In today’s podcast, I’m going to answer a question that someone has asked me about difficult conversations. This question relates to how to talk to employees who are going out with someone else in the business. I’m going to look at whether you actually need to have the conversation and if you do, how to go about it.    

Hopefully, I’ll shed some light on some of the issues you’ve come across and you’ll take away something that’s really going to help you.  

So here goes… 

My response to this question was that unless the personal relationship is impacting the team and behaviours, then it should be a private matter.  

In the modern world, we spend so much time at work so forming relationships with colleagues is becoming a lot more common. In this podcast, I’m going to be talking mainly about romantic relationships, but you shouldn’t forget that personal relationships can include family relationships, close friendships, and close business relationships too.  

Given that personal relationships are becoming more common in the workplace and the fact that employees have the right to a private life, employers have to accept that they’ll happen.  

However, what happens when a relationship turns sour or issues arise because one of the people is a manager and gives preferential treatment to the person they’re dating? 

Or what about if the employee has felt pressurised into a relationship with a senior person (and yes this still goes on) 

In these kinds of situations, it is appropriate to have a sensitive conversation about how the relationship is impacting the team or business. While an employer or manager doesn’t have the right to interfere in personal relationships, they are entitled to act when it’s impacting the business.  

The most difficult conversations are often the personal ones, but a sensitive and thoughtful intervention sooner rather than later can prevent a whole lot of trouble.

Here are some examples of when a conversation is needed; 

An employee’s performance has deteriorated because of a personal relationship; 

The employee is clearly under pressure and acting out of character and signs are the relationship is affecting them at work  

The employees involved in the relationship are behaving unprofessionally at work; 

One of the people in the relationship is a manager and they’ve given preferential treatment to the other person; 

There’s discontent brewing in the team about perceived preferential treatment; 

The people in the relationship bring their issues or arguments into the workplace; 

One of the people in the relationship was involved in the recruitment process when the other person was employed; 

When there’s been a breach of confidentiality because one of the people in the relationship has discussed something they shouldn’t with the other; 

Where bullying or harassment occurs after a personal relationship ends. 

I’m sure you can think of a lot more examples of when a personal relationship in the workplace could become a problem, even if you don’t have any issues 99% of the time.  

The first thing I would start with is if you see a team member showing signs of struggling because of a relationship in work then a 1-2-1 would give them an opportunity to open up.  

So how do you have a conversation when you decide that one is needed?  

Talking about relationships is usually a difficult conversation, especially if something has gone wrong.  

But the good news is that there are a few key principles to remember that will help you have a productive conversation and handle it sensitively.  

The first thing is to focus on the situation, particularly the impact the relationship is having on the team and/or the business, not on the people involved.  

Stick to the facts on how the relationship is affecting the team- are other team members unhappy at the perceived preferential of one person by another? Have you witnessed any inappropriate behaviour in the workplace?  

Meet with the employee or both employees if they are in the same team. Be fair, consistent, and sensitive, and explain that while they have a right to privacy, an employer does have the right to intervene legitimately and reasonably if the relationship is having a negative impact in the workplace.  

Work together to identify some measures that can be put in place to address the issues and review things at an agreed time.  

Of course, these are general guidelines for handling a difficult conversation of this nature. There are many variables that will determine the kind of conversation you have and the action that needs to be taken.  

For example, imagine that two employees in a relationship were spending an excessive amount of time texting each other or otherwise distracting each other from work so performance was suffering. Maybe if this was the first time you’d become aware of it, it would be enough to have a quiet word with those involved.  

However, if there was clear misconduct resulting from the two people being in a relationship then it could become a more serious disciplinary matter.  

When it comes to most employee issues, difficult conversations can be made less difficult by setting out expectations right from the beginning.  

You could do this for personal relationships in the form of a policy. A policy can be really useful when it comes to putting down in black and white what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in the workplace. It’s also a good way to let employees know what will happen if problems arise.  

For a lot of managers, dealing with personal matters like relationships between employees is not something they relish and they might not feel confident in doing so. Having a policy in place can help managers understand their responsibilities and the steps they can take, within the law.  

As for what you might include in a standalone policy or a section of a policy on personal relationships at work, think about; 

Defining what a personal relationship is; 

Defining what behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable; 

What happens if the policy is breached; 

How to manage relationships in the workplace, covering things like conflict of interest and managing behaviours; 

What to do if bullying or harassment occurs after a relationship ends.  

Policies protect you as a manager or employer, and if the policy has been communicated to everyone, employees can’t claim ignorance of the rules.  

Just a quick mention by the way, that if you need help putting together a policy on this or amending an existing policy to include it, I can help you. Just get in touch.  

Most of the time, personal relationships in the workplace won’t cause you any problems, but when they do, you’re within your rights to take appropriate action, which can be anything from taking someone aside for a quiet word to having a more formal and serious conversation.  

Do you feel like you need some support with having difficult conversations? 

When it comes to thinking about what to say and how to say it, do you feel way out of your depth? 

Are there issues that desperately need to be addressed but you can’t seem to rip off the band-aid and have that difficult conversation? 

My ‘Making Difficult Conversations Easier’ 3-month programme   – is all about helping managers have the confidence to deal with problems, hold difficult conversations, and build engagement to create an open, honest, and high-performing workforce.  

Imagine having a team where nobody is scared to speak up about something, that performs better and is productive, engaged, and profitable. Imagine that everyone wants to work together for the good of the business and no issue is insurmountable.  

It’s all possible. 

Get in touch to book a discovery call.  

That’s all from today’s podcast. I hope it gave you some food for thought and that it makes some of those difficult conversations you’ve been dreading feel that bit easier.  

Goodbye for now, and see you next time. 

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