When a colleague brings their romantic life into the workplace, it can be awkward and challenging for all involved, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with host Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition to explain how to navigate awkward romantic situations at work, such as affairs, unrequited love, and jealousy.

Stephen Quinn: What should a worker do if they get wind of an extra-marital affair between colleagues?

Jennifer Newman: Rumours about someone having an affair can be damaging, and this kind of gossip hurts those spreading it and the subjects of the rumours. Keep the focus on your job. Speculating about what's going on between co-workers is a non-starter.

Jennifer Newman

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

For example, there was a worker who was speculating on whether his colleague was sleeping with the married boss. He thought all the signs were there: the two of them had long absences from work, and traveled together for out-of-town meetings and conferences.

He kept an eye on it all. If his colleague got a perk, he put it down to the affair. It consumed him.

Rather than spend time thinking about his job, he spent time tracking and spying, and then telling his friend at work. At the end of the day it's wise to not get involved. Distracting oneself and spreading gossip is hurtful and career-limiting.

What about when a worker is enamoured with a colleague? And instead of reciprocating, their co-worker doesn't give them a second thought?

Unrequited love is difficult to face and at work it can be especially problematic. If a worker has let their colleague know they are romantically interested and has then been rebuffed, it can hurt.

Some believe if they try harder, or think of something new to impress, they'll prevail. This is when the pursuer gets into dangerous territory. They may think they are professing their love, when really the recipient feels harassed.

For example there was a love-struck worker [who] believed he had found 'the one' at work. He was turned down when he asked his colleague to go for coffee. Then he started leaving little presents on her desk, and frequently wandered by her desk. But his co-worker complained to the boss, and he was told to stop harassing his colleague.

What if colleagues have been on a few dates?  Then one finds out their date is taking other co-workers out, too?

This may bring up feelings of jealousy, which is a powerful emotion. It can be rooted in possessiveness and insecurity. It can become a significant problem if unchecked. When people are jealous, there is a tendency to compare one's self unfavourably to others and they also become hyper-critical. At work, this can interfere with being able to function on a team.

What about couples who work together in the workplace?

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If couples are fighting in the office, or being overly affectionate, it can make other people feel uncomfortable, Newman says. (Getty Images)

This can be a problem depending upon how the couple handles their relationship in the workplace. If the couple is in the middle of a fight or break-up, colleagues may feel caught-up in the drama. Or the couple may express affection for each other while at work — but that might make others feel uncomfortable.

In some workplaces employees may see their colleagues date different people. What effect can that have?

Yes, some couples may have met at work, break-up and then start a new relationship with another colleague. This can happen when a work site has a lot of long-time employees. In these cases, you may see a couple struggle and involve others in their break-up. Afterwards, co-workers are privy to a new romance. Then if one finds another partner at work, their ex-partner grapples with hurt and jealousy. It can get quite complicated. Many times someone in the triangle will ask for a transfer.

These situations can produce a lot of gossip. It's best to stay out of the situation altogether, and let the parties work things out.

What can employers do to navigate these awkward romantic situations?

The main concern for employers is whether workers are focussed on the job at hand. These awkward situations often distract from that, and in that case managers may intervene.

Gossip is a not appreciated in most workplaces, and is considered disrespectful. Supervisors will follow workplace respect policies to deal with gossip. If a worker's job performance is suffering due to jealousy, a supervisor is likely to reiterate their expectations. Employers are also legally bound to stop harassment, and will investigate incidents where an employee feels targeted.

If break-ups or new romances interrupt worker ability to do their jobs, employers have a few options:

  • Obtain counselling for distraught workers.
  • Transfer colleagues.
  • Insist on professional behaviour at work.
  • Discuss workplace policies regarding dating and romance; respect at work, bullying and harassment, and re-iterate performance expectations.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman explains how to navigate one's colleagues' office romances