When is a working relationship different to a personal one? What does the law say?

The term relationship can spark fear into a man’s eyes, leave a student scrambling for their Bloom taxonomy, or title a women’s magazine. It is a milieu of social cues, legal jargon, cultural norms, and academia all rolled up into an innocuous word. Today, we explore the difference between a personal and working relationship and why it is essential to distinguish between the two.

When we talk about a working relationship, we are talking about our professional life. These relationships happen between colleagues, clients, and professional networks. However, with the rise of social media and out of work bonding, the lines between personal and professional have become blurred.


To assist in defining these lines, we turned to Marchia Sirota, a Psychiatrist and Relationship Specialist. “In personal relationships, we value the quality of the connection with the other person,” Dr Sirota stated. “The closeness is an object in itself. We spend time with friends and family because it feels good to be with them. We care about each other, want the best for each other and are there for each other. In our professional relationships, we might genuinely like the other person; we might even look out for each other and support one another. Still, this type of relationship is about helping the other person get ahead in their career.”

There is an important point to distinguish between relationships. A professional relationship holds very different stakes to a personal one, yet both should be based on respect and polite responsibility. Professional relationships do not excuse bad behaviour. It is only the stakes and interest differ.

We broke down the differences between working and personal relationships below and looked for what defined each type.

A working relationship

A working relationship is based on policies and procedures. These are set out by contracts of employment and codes of practice. That means any professional relationship should follow this simple rule. Act first as an employee and a professional, and then as a personal individual. This can sometimes be hard. You will have co-workers who surpass working relationship ranks and become intimate ‘out-of-work’ friends. However, even when you like someone as a person, within the workplace, your relationship has very definable and mandated boundaries. How strict these boundaries are is dependent on your workplace and industry. Some workplaces have very lax limitations on working relationships. One famous example is the hospitality industry. The nature of customer service means that workers often blur professional boundaries because of the emotional labour involved.

Writing about working relationships in this manner makes them sound stale and impersonal. That does not have to be the case. It is human nature to form relationships wherever we go, and this is not a negative thing. Fostering a working relationship is the reason behind mentor-mentee relationships. These can develop to the benefit of individuals and a company.

Besides, having emotional support in the workplace is essential for worker morale and mental health. Study after study has found that human’s need connection. Nevertheless, academics have also found that people need relational borders. Thus, distinguishing between working and personal relationships is vital.

What is a personal relationship then?

If a working relationship is defined by the value of the relationship to one’s career: then a personal relationship is grounded in the value of personal connection. It is altruistic. You like a person and share a history, interests, and values. There are no rules, and that is what makes it a personal and intimate relationship.

Dr Sirota says: “In personal relationships, our pride is at risk. In professional ones, our livelihood is. Moreover, this is why it is so important to be that much more careful in the latter type of relationship. In our personal relationships, we want to be open and straightforward. We want to be seen and appreciated for who we are. In professional relationships, we need to be more strategic. We want to be well-liked but not necessarily well-known. In the former type of relationship, we want to build intimacy. In the latter, over-sharing could lead to information being used against us.”

Bases for a sound personal relationship

Personal relationships are thus based on intimacy, honesty, and shared camaraderie. Dr Sirota hits an exciting line in her exploration of personal and professional relationships. One affects your livelihood; the other our pride. By definition, this means all relationships outside of those involved with our livelihood count as personal. If it is not to do with your career or paycheck, the relationship is a personal one.

Like everything relational, the idea of a personal connection is subjective. There are different levels of intimacy and personal connection. For example, your family member is a personal relationship. However, so too is your friend from high school. Comparing these two relationships is nonsensical. They are different. To measure the value of one against the other negates the circumstances in which you both connect.

Working & intimate relationship

This law of environments, where personal relationships differ according to context, means you can have personal relationships with people from work. The relationship then exists as both a working and an intimate relationship. It depends on the environment.

For example, spouses who work together have to navigate these two types of relationships. During working hours and at the place of work, the two people have to maintain a professional association. To act as a spouse instead of a colleague would make working together inappropriate. Vice versa, bringing home a working relationship would mean jeopardising their home life. This is a difficult thing to navigate. It is also the reason why so many companies frown upon or ban inter-colleague dating.

What are the legal definitions?

The UK has murky legalities surrounding workplace relationships and romance. A survey conducted by Monster found that 60% of workers in the UK had been”intimate with a colleague regularly.” Most UK companies allow this. The survey additionally found that one in four long term relationships begun at work.

With statistics like these, the UK has a flexible approach to personal relationships in the workplace. Industry-standard favours using individual employee handbooks to navigate the personal/ professional line. This is kind, considering many US companies use ‘love contracts’ to make office dating and affairs a sackable offence. In comparison, the UK enshrines privacy over relationship boundaries. Sandra Wallace, a partner at DLA Piper, told the Guardian that: “you can be fairly open if you are having an affair at work without fear of being dismissed.” This is mainly due to the UK’s right to private life as listed in the Human Rights Act of 1998.

This means that as long as one relationship does not impact the other – especially in terms of confidentiality and appraisals- then the personal/ working relationship divide is more for your own sanity than legal import.

UK law and the business standard is to allow the blurring of personal and professional lines. However, for the sake of your career and to protect all your relationships, it is best to be clear about the boundaries between private life and work. This involves candid discussions and letting management know when office romance blooms.

Find a lawyer now!

If you need help on family law, divorce and relationship breakdown, find a specialist family law solicitor now. Do you need advice on separation or divorce-related issues? Ask a divorce lawyer on Qredible.co.uk!

Clark, S.C., 2000. Work/family border theory: A new method of work/family balance. Human Relations53(6), pp.747-770.

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