Neil Buck: Workplace romances – good or bad for business?

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As Valentines Day is upon us yet again and love fills the air, there are several potential HR issues for employers when such love blossoms (or sadly fails) in the workplace and relationships go beyond the professional remit.

It can be a minefield that is not so full of roses!

Sexual harassment

No surprises here with this one being a major risk. If advances go beyond what is reasonable in the eyes of the recipient, then a case of sexual harassment may need to be managed – check the Equal Opportunity and Dignity at Work Policy (if you have one).

There’s been many successful sexual harassment cases brought where the instigator became too persistent where ‘no thanks’ is not taken as no and advances have got out of hand.

Comments can put you in dodgy territory – if it is sexual in nature, intrusive, or keeps being made, they can constitute sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment could also occur if someone uses their position of power to make sexual advances e.g. where a manager asks a junior employee for a date in return for a promotion or pay rise – that would be grounds for direct sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

Even playing cupid has found one business owner losing a case of sexual harassment for repeatedly trying to matchmake between staff, despite those intentions not being malicious in anyway.

Employers need to remember that employees are entitled to a private life, and so they should only interfere in personal relationships only when there is, or may be, a direct impact on the workplace.

Unfavourable treatment

This could be indirect discrimination (sexual orientation) if say a same sex couple is treated any different from a heterosexual couple – consistency is always key in employment law so employers should always act fairly, reasonably and consistently regardless of who they are dealing with.

Inappropriate behaviour or conduct

For example, getting frisky in the kitchen at break time, open displays of intimacy such as touching, hand-holding and kissing etc may make colleagues, or even customers, embarrassed or uncomfortable plus it is unprofessional.

The grievance or disciplinary procedure may have to be used to address anything complained about or where it affects business negatively in any way.

Tightening up on the email/ I.T. usage policies may be worthwhile here too e.g. to prevent or manage the situation where two colleagues may be sending personal or naughty emails/messages in work time between each other.

Seniority – favouritism or exerting pressure

If a senior manager favours or benefits his/her partner in any way due to their relationship, this would be unfair and a lack of consistency or unfairness will breed a disharmonious workforce in next to no time.

As stated above, someone in a senior position should not abuse their position to exert any pressure to establish relations on a less senior person. This could make them feel they have no choice to submit to such pressure and could be sexual harassment.

Consistency is the key and clear professional boundaries need to be kept no matter where any person sits in the organisational structure.

Breaches of confidentiality – ‘pillow talk’

Employers should be particularly on their guard about employees giving away confidential information to their partner when they work for the same organisation.

For example, an employee might tell their partner about a meeting related to another employee, divulging confidential information about that person.

Or there could be disclosure of commercially sensitive information to a partner, even if they work for the same organisation.

Employers should warn employees that it would be possible grounds for disciplinary action for an employee to go home and discuss confidential matters with his or her partner.

The ‘fall-out’ – when it all goes wrong

A break-up between colleagues can be a nightmare for all involved – not only the parties but also their colleagues and the business could suffer.

For instance, there could be broken communication lines, awkwardness, silences, taking advantage of the situation, one of the parties may start looking for another job so there’s a loss of talent or one of them could go off on long term sickness to avoid their ex at work.

Employers need deal with any potential problems early and to warn the employees of the behaviour expected of them when they discover a relationship has broken down.

Hopefully, the employees will rise above it all and take control themselves to ensure there are no major side effects, but that may be hard for them to do!

Employers can apply their disciplinary procedure policy if one employee harasses the other or both are acting inappropriately while at work.

So, what can an employer do to ensure risks are minimised?

Well you can make sure your current HR policies are up to date and cover the things mentioned here e.g:

  • Disciplinary Procedure
  • Grievance Procedure
  • Equal Opportunity/ Dignity at Work or Harassment Policy
  • Rules should be set and applied consistently

A policy on personal relationships at work could also be considered to set the expectations in an attempt to strike a balance between protecting the employer’s legitimate business interests and the rights of employees to a private life.

The bottom line is that it’s clear that no-one can make rules about falling in love.

Most people spend a big chunk of their lives at work, so it’s natural that strong bonds will be formed, which can sometimes naturally turn into something more.

It’s totally reasonable to expect employees to be discrete and professional at work when that happens.

Ultimately, employers should just be alert to what’s going on and mindful of the issues that can arise.

If workplace romances are going on, then it makes sense that you carefully manage the situation and have the right management policies in place to use if necessary and ensure that it doesn’t turn into an HR disaster.

Happy Valentines