Richard Branson on office romance etiquette

You can’t stop employees falling in love with each other—so celebrate it, like I do.

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(Photo: Frederic Cirou/ PhotoAlto/Getty)

There are many types of family businesses. I was reminded of this recently after acquiring the British bank Northern Rock, which we are in the process of rebranding as 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 later, 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-old relationship with a female co-worker. Though they were prudent at work, outside the office they still had to worry about being spotted 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 misdemeanor. 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 piqued, 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.

First, let’s bring romance back to the office—though the KISS rule (“Keep it simple, stupid”) seems 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 respect for your company’s policies. Any guidelines you put in place should avoid forcing people to conceal their relationships—that openness will prove to be a win-win for your company and your employees.

Second, while it is not at all surprising that two people who work closely might fall in love, one should not report to the other. If a couple find themselves in this situation, their managers should make other arrangements, adjusting the reporting structure so that this is not an issue.

Next, the parties involved should make it a long-distance relationship. While every situation is different, 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.

Even if the lovebirds don’t share a department, 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 wise.

Finally, couples should keep their romance offline. They should not use corporate e-mail systems to send private messages. One mistake might broadcast to the whole company things that are much better kept private!

Rather than implementing prohibitive rules that make for distracted and unhappy employees, it’s far better to prepare some sensible guidelines for your company 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. It should be celebrated.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies.

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