When should you declare your feelings for a colleague?

Many a love story has begun at work. The highlight of your day is when your breaks coincide; at work-organised social events, you gravitate towards each other. You tentatively suggest a night out, just the two of you; after a few dates, you know that they’re the one. Gazing into their eyes, you say those three little words: let’s tell HR.

Knowing about the romantic relationships between employees helps employers to minimise (or spot) harassment and favouritism. Many employers now have policies around reporting such relationships, especially for cases where one person has power over the other – either by directly managing them, or where their seniority or job role means they might be able to influence the opportunities available to their partner.

But not every couple does declare their relationship. In a survey of American workers commissioned by Forbes Advisor in 2023, just 62% of those who had had a romantic relationship with a colleague said they had reported it to HR. Sometimes there are good reasons for not doing so – if you fear discrimination because of your sexual orientation, for example. But even where no serious consequences would result, it may just not feel like your love life is any of your employer’s business – if you’re at the same level of seniority, work in separate departments and never work on common projects, does anyone at work really need to know?

Employers should have clear policies about what kinds of relationships are permitted

Perhaps not, although there’s always the possibility that changes to job roles or hierarchical structures can unexpectedly cause a couple’s professional roles to overlap. Hopefully, employees can be trusted to report relationships when they do become relevant, which requires employers to have clear policies about what kinds of relationships are permitted in the workplace. And where an employee wants to disclose a relationship, it should be clear that any information offered will be treated fairly, confidentially and non-judgmentally.

Coworkers falling in love can even be an indication of a friendly, supportive workplace culture. But that’s not to say that employers should encourage relationships between employees. People should be able to concentrate on their jobs without having to fend off unwanted advances from colleagues.

So if you are thinking about asking out a coworker this Valentine’s day, first ask yourself: would you be comfortable with your approach being disclosed to HR? Or if your current behaviour towards your colleague was reported? And if they were to turn you down, would you accept that answer as final? If the answer to any of those questions is no, limit further interactions to the strictly professional. Otherwise you won’t be writing the first few pages of a love story – you’ll be opening a misconduct case.