Office romances: is love in the air in your workplace this Valentine’s Day?

“Love is in the air, everywhere I look around”! As two employees’ eyes meet across an open plan office, sparks fly, they swoon and the HR department waits with bated breath to see if this will be an office romance that blossoms or breaks down.

An employer faced with an office romance has a difficult balancing act to carry out between respecting the employees’ private lives and protecting its own business interests. So what steps can an employer take to help strike this balance?

Having an employee relationship policy in place is a good way to increase the chances that an employer will become aware of any relationships that begin and end between staff members. Such visibility can be key in approaching the management of the infatuated employees (and of other employees who may be impacted by their relationship) in the right way.

It is common for an employee relationship policy to allow workplace relationships but set parameters for how the participants conduct themselves at work. Examples of such parameters may include:

  • in the event a senior manager dates a more junior member of the same team, the imposition of a requirement that the relationship should be disclosed;
  • limiting relationships where one party reports to the other (e.g. one cannot appraise the other);
  • where employees are in a relationship, they must not disclose confidential information to each other (i.e. no pillow talk allowed!);
  • a relationship between two employees must not impact on their job performance or conduct whilst at work and inappropriate behaviour whilst at work will not be tolerated;
  • a requirement that, in the event that the relationship breaks down, the employees must notify their managers.

It is important that any employee relationship policy is applied consistently across all employees. If the rules in the policy are breached, the employer may consider disciplinary action.

In addition to implementing an employee relationship policy, there are a number of issues that an employer should keep in mind when managing two employees who are in a relationship:

  1. Sex discrimination claims – if (or when) a workplace relationship breaks down it can all too easily create a hostile work environment and the employees may not be able to work together effectively. It is important for an employer to consider how best to deal with the individuals in such a situation. Can you separate the employees and have them work in different departments? If there is no way around this, an employer may be forced to let one of the employees go. In this situation, how do you decide which person to dismiss as a result of the breakdown in the relationship? It’s important that, if an employer has to single out one of the employees for dismissal, they don’t find themselves facing a discrimination claim.
  2. Sexual harassment claims – is asking out John from Accounts harassment or a romantic gesture? Is complimenting a colleague allowed or not allowed? Has Sharon raised a grievance because her advances have been spurned? These are all issues that an employer needs to handle very delicately. Context is, as always, key in determining whether an employee has crossed the line and employers should make sure they take any allegations of harassment seriously and follow all relevant policies consistently.
  3. Allegations from other colleagues of preferential treatment – it is important that any employees who are in an office relationship understand the importance of proper workplace conduct. A workplace relationship impacts on many employees, not solely those in the relationship. Employees outside the relationship may feel that a party to the romance receives preferential treatment. This can damage working relationships, so it is important that an employer takes any such allegations seriously and communicates with those in the relationship to investigate and resolve any instances of favouritism.

Employers should keep all these issues in mind and ensure that they review victimisation, harassment and anti-bullying policies regularly to avoid falling foul of any legal issues that may arise as a result of office romances.

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Helena Rozman

About Helena Rozman

Helena has experience in acting for both employees and employers covering both contentious and non-contentious work. Helena's experience includes defending Employment Tribunal claims and engaging in settlement negotiations; advising clients on complex disciplinary matters, exit strategies and large restructuring exercises, including TUPE and redundancy; co-ordinating and responding to data subject access requests; advising on the employment implications on business and asset purchases and outsourcing arrangements; project managing and advising clients on multi-jurisdictional projects with our international offices; drafting settlement agreements for exiting employees; advising on the employment aspects of corporate transactions and undertaking due diligence; and reviewing contracts, company handbooks and policies.

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