There are many types of family businesses, as I was reminded when Virgin Money recently acquired the British bank Northern Rock, which we are in the process of rebranding Virgin Money. As I travelled around the country, welcoming the Northern Rockers as the newest members of the Virgin Group, the bank’s strong family spirit was evident. Not only did I constantly meet husbands and wives working in the same offices but, in several cases, sons and daughters too.
I cannot think of a stronger endorsement than an employee’s recommending the company to his relatives as a good place to work.
A couple of days after those meetings, I had dinner with an old friend from New York who asked me about Virgin’s policy on office romances. It seems that his 28-year-old son works at a company that prohibits all romantic relationships between employees. The young man was having a miserable time trying to conceal his three-month relationship with a female co-worker. Though they were very prudent while at work, outside the office they had to worry about being spotted together by an office whistle-blower.
I hadn’t thought about this issue before. Everyone spends more time than ever before in the workplace and, with most first marriages taking place in people’s mid- to late 20s, falling in love at the office would seem inevitable, rather than a corporate misdemeanour. To the best of my knowledge, we at Virgin have never had any problems with office relationships—and we do not prohibit them.
My interest was piqued, so I talked to some people at progressive companies and used their advice and our experience at Virgin to develop a more sensible approach to office romance. Employers and employees can use these guidelines to avoid problems without shooting cupid down.
• Bring romance back to the office
Kiss (“Keep it simple, stupid”) would seem to be applicable here. If single employees are told that they are free to have a relationship with any consenting single colleague, then it should be easier to gain their compliance and respect for your company’s policy.
Any guidelines you put in place should be designed to avoid forcing people to conceal their relationships—that openness will prove to be a win-win for your company and your employees.
• Who reports to whom?
While it is not at all surprising that two people who work closely might fall in love, they should not report one to the other. If a couple finds themselves in this situation, their managers should make other arrangements, adjusting the reporting structure so that this is not an issue.
• Try to make it a long-distance relationship
While every company and situation is different, managers should keep in mind that it is likely not a good idea for the couple to work together, especially in a small department. No matter how discreet and sensible the pair might be, too close a working relationship will invite problems. Some physical distance may be good for everyone.
• Discretion is key
One person I consulted said: “They should act like a married couple around the office—no outward displays of affection.” Perhaps a lame joke, but also wise.
• Keep it offline
Couples should not use corporate email systems to send very private messages. One mistake might broadcast the note to the whole company—perhaps things that are much better kept private!
Any forward-thinking company should think twice about prohibiting office romances. Rather than implementing rules that (as in my friend’s son’s case) make for distracted and unhappy employees, it would be far better to prepare some commonsense guidelines for your company that will help couples to cope with the relationships that will inevitably arise, and in a manner that is helpful to everyone, from the couple’s managers to their colleagues.
A great company behaves something like an extended family—cheering successes, finding the upside of mistakes and getting together periodically to reconnect. Employees falling in love is all part of the adventure, and should be celebrated.
By NYT Syndicate
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson
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