What’s the recipe to managing romantic relationships between colleagues?
A teaspoon of common sense, a dash of respecting privacy and a massive dollop of looking out for your business interests.
Is there a problem if your colleagues embark on a romantic relationship?
Most relationships between colleagues will not present any types of problems for an employer if those involved are professional and capable of successfully separating their work and personal life. But in some cases, difficult and sensitive issues may arise.
One of the things that could happen is favouritism (or the perception of preferential treatment). For example, if some employees thinks they are being passed over for promotion, getting fewer training opportunities or being treated less favourably than their colleague who is dating their line manager, this can lead to workplace tensions and resentment.
But there’s no legal risk, right?
Wrong. Here are some potential grounds for a claim:
Sex discrimination – Following a nasty break up, if a junior female employee is dismissed but the male senior employee is kept in their post, this could amount to sex discrimination.
Sexual harassment – This is defined as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. For example, if an employee makes jokes about a colleague’s sex life, indulges in unwelcome touching or sends offensive emails, this could all be considered harassment.
To avoid such claims, you must be able to prove that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing harassment in your workplace.
Victimisation – If an employee raises a grievance of discrimination or harassment against another employee and the employer treats them badly, for example, they deny them training opportunities, this could constitute victimisation. If there is a possible breach of trust and confidence, this could also lead to constructive dismissal claims.
Should we have rules?
You may be attracted to the idea of a ‘love contract’, which are common in the US. These types of contracts formally declare that the relationship is consensual and therefore try to protect the employer in case one of the employees in the relationships later claims they have suffered sexual harassment. However, this approach is not recommended in the UK as it could be a breach of human rights.
Instead, the most sensible approach is for employers to impose workplace rules on personal relationships at work, with the aim of ensuring that individual members of staff are not open to allegations of impropriety, bias, abuse of authority or conflict of interest. It is important that you strike the balance of not invading an employee’s private life whilst protecting your business interests. A HR specialist will be able to support you in striking that balance.
It’s important you have all the appropriate policies in place, including a code of conduct, grievance procedure and rules on harassment.
How should I manage relationships between colleagues?
Rather than ban workplace relationships altogether, which would be unrealistic and hard to enforce, some employers decide to ask employees to disclose their relationship, especially in cases where the relationship is between a manager and a subordinate.
It is worth reminding them that they should always behave in a professional manner, paying due consideration to colleagues, customers and clients.
It’s also useful to reiterate that if an employee does become involved in a personal relationship with a colleague, it is their responsibility to deal appropriately with any potential conflicts of interest.
Where a personal relationship exists between employees who are in a line management or supervisory relationship at work, they must not be involved in recruitment, selection, appraisal, promotion or in any other management activity or process involving the other party, as this may result in a conflict of interest.
In such circumstances, the relevant manager, senior manager or director should be informed and, where appropriate, make alternative arrangements.
If involved employees do separate, you may wish to explore the option of moving one of the parties to another team or department to make sure that there is a positive working environment for all concerned.
You should give your managers training on how best to handle situations like this and ensure they are familiar with all the relevant procedures and codes of conduct.
It can also lead to gossip. You may shrug it off as harmless workplace chit-chat, but there can be negative consequences. Not only can it waste employee’s time and affect their productivity, gossip can destroy trust, ruin team dynamics and wreck careers.
Worse, if the relationship breaks down acrimoniously, it can lead to a very awkward and uncomfortable working environment for everyone concerned.
Dealing with an office romance or its aftermath? Seek professional advice from one of our experienced Employment Law Advisers on 0345 226 8393.