With February being the month of romance, love is in the air. But what happens when romance enters the workplace and two employees start an office relationship? How does an employer strike the right balance between respecting the employees‘ privacy and protecting its business interests? Lloyd Clarke takes a look.
Considering that we spend 90% of our day with our colleagues, the chances of romantic relationships forming in the workplace are fairly high. But with any office romance comes a potential headache for employers, as it leaves an employer open to several legal risks, especially when a relationship breaks down. Some firms make it a condition of employment that any serious office liaison – particularly one that involves a manager and a direct report – is officially disclosed and managed appropriately. For companies and employers with less draconian policies, it’s still important to know your position and what potential risks you may be open to.
How to manage relationships in the workplace
With any office relationship, especially the breakdown of one, there are risks. Dealing with a romantic affair in the workplace, or the break-up of one, is certainly one of the more challenging issues that an HR Manager or boss will have to face. It is certainly one that needs handling with the utmost care.
One of the potential risks is that of sex discrimination, which can occur when, after the breakdown of a relationship, one of the employees is either dismissed from their role or moved to a different department, whilst the other remains in their original role untouched.
Employers also have to be wary of sexual harassment, which can occur if one employee engages in any kind of unwanted sexual conduct, be that emails, calls or offensive behaviour. Employers can however apply their disciplinary procedure if one employee harasses the other or both are acting inappropriately while at work.
Particularly after a relationship breakdown, both sexual harassment and sex discrimination have to be carefully handled in the case of warring co-workers who are going through a break-up.
Whilst an employer can’t ban romantic relationships in the workplace, they can certainly put in a range of measures and policies in the event of an office romance developing. Guidelines about personal relationships can be detailed in the form of a Workplace Relationship Policy, which allows both the employer and employee to be clear on the company’s code of conduct.
Policies could include the following: guidelines on intimate behaviour at work, a duty to disclose a relationship, a grievance policy through which employees can make a complaint and penalties for breaching the policy.
An employer could also stipulate that employees shouldn’t allow a workplace relationship to affect their work, whilst also setting out a range of other guidelines so that all workers are clear on the policy.
Employers should be particularly vigilant about privacy, in terms of any private or confidential information being shared by employees who are romantic partners. An employee could relay information to their partner that is confidential about another employee, or disclose information that hasn’t yet been made public within the organisation.
As much as an employer should be aware of this, it would also be advisable to an employee not to disclose commercially sensitive information to a partner. Employers can of course use their policy to warn employees that discussing confidential matters, sharing private information or disclosing sensitive information to their partner, would be grounds for disciplinary action.
However, the policy does need to strike a balance between protecting the employer’s legitimate business interests and the rights of employees to a private life. It is worth seeking legal advice on this matter.
The same rules across the board
As with any company policy, it needs to be applied consistently to everyone in the organisation and rules on relationships in the workplace need to apply to everybody across the board.
This includes senior managers and bosses. Whilst technically senior staff should be looked at to set an example, it is vital that they don’t abuse their power by initiating relationships with junior staff over whom they may hold sway.
A company need to present a united front, and as well as being applied to everybody in the hierarchy, rules should also be applied to all couples. By way of example, policy and rules should apply in the same fashion to same-sex couples as they would to heterosexual couples. Otherwise, there could be the potential for a case of direct sexual orientation discrimination.
If you are an employer seeking guidance or an employee in need of legal advice, please call Lloyd Clarke on 01206 239761.