Many people will have met their partner in the workplace and this will always be a thing. Without taking away from the romance of Valentine’s Day, Rhian Radia asks whether an employer has any right to dampen blossoming office relationships and identifies some of the associated risks if relationships are not properly managed.
The office romance is thankfully not something governed by law. We are free to form relationships with whomever we please. But, given the impact romantic relationships can have in the workplace and to a business, employers may want to have clear policies that set out where individuals stand and what is expected of them when in a relationship with a colleague.
It is rare to find a UK workplace where romantic relationships are banned. Whilst employers can ban workplace relationships, it would likely prove deeply unpopular and would be almost impossible to enforce. Instead, clear policies on what is considered acceptable behaviour and where employees stand are more commonplace.
Here are five areas to consider.
Harassment in the workplace remains problematic. See the recent news around McDonald’s and remote working during the pandemic did not change harassment levels. Harassment just took different forms.
Is sending a Valentine’s card or being asked on a date by a colleague harassment? It depends how this is received. Certainly where advances are rejected but this is ignored and someone is left feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed or intimidated, then this is harassment territory.
Abuse of power, where a senior colleague uses their position of power or influence to make unwanted romantic or sexual advances towards a junior member of staff is in the spotlight post #metoo
Where an individual in a senior position is dating a colleague in a more junior role, whispers or allegations of favouritism in allocation of work or promotion are not uncommon. It may not always be possible to change reporting lines but this is an area to watch.
Personal and professional relationships can be often difficult to separate, and that may cause problems when confidential or sensitive information is involved.
When relationships turn sour
In the words of Miley Cyrus “we were right ‘til we weren’t”. This is where grievances, investigations and claims often come from. This is why workplaces will have policies requiring the disclosure of relationships so that an employer can manage risk. In academia, non-disclosure of relationships can result in disciplinary sanctions.
Popular in the USA, love contracts will often require colleagues in a relationship to inform their employer. The more senior the role, the more rigorous these contracts are applied, often restricting relationships with more junior employees.
How an employer will respond to relationships in the workplace will vary, with the size of the organisation and the nature of its business being determining factors. But, given the impact office romances can have, employers may wish to consider the following:
- Encourage employees to report office relationships, allowing you to discuss and manage any potential problems.
- When interviewing, ask candidates to declare if they are in a relationship with any of the organisation’s employees to ensure no allegations of favouritism.
- Where a relationship is between a senior and junior employee, consider whether reporting and management lines need to be changed.
- Consider the impact of a relationship on confidential and sensitive information.
- If a relationship fails, consider the behaviour of both individuals towards each other and the impact on other employees. When it comes to office romances, it is rarely just about the couple.
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The above is accurate as at 14 February 2023. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.