January 29, 2014
Despite all the cautionary tales regarding the dangers of office romance, countless employees start up relationships with co-workers every year. Whether sparks fly over the work photocopier or more likely, on a Friday night in the pub after work, the workplace still beats the internet for finding romance. The sheer number of hours we spend with colleagues together with the stresses and strains of work, can lead to close friendships that may go on to become a relationship further down the line. Research shows that couples who met at work are most likely to marry. However, the fact is that many relationships can and do fail and this is no less so for workplace relationships. Whilst clearly there are issues for the people involved to manage, it can also create headaches for employers.
Most people will know of someone who has had a disastrous relationship, affair or fling with a work colleague, and witnessed the fallout from a failed relationship. But for employers a whole range of problems may surface.
For instance will the parties be able to maintain a professional relationship if the relationship breaks down? What is the impact on the rest of the team/department/company due to the change in dynamic? What if one party is subject to disciplinary action or is dismissed? Further problems can occur were one partner is in a position of authority over the other at work. Will this lead to allegations of bullying and harassment if the relationship goes sour?
There are other unique issues that arise for employers when dealing with those workplace couples that stay together. Joint holiday leave applications may become an issue if the couple comprises key people in the organisation. Likewise time off for caring for children or dependents may create similar issues. Employers seeking to avoid this however need to tread carefully, as under the Equality Act 2010, employers are not permitted to treat married people less favorably than it would do other workers or to reject an applicant who is married to a staff member.
Employers also need to be mindful that not all romantic “approaches” are welcome and alcohol induced romantic dalliances at work-related events may be regretted. This can cause serious issues especially where the instigator is in a position of seniority. Any of these situations can lead to sexual harassment claims.
It should go without saying that every employer should ensure that they have a bullying and harassment policy and staff should be made aware of what behaviour is and is not acceptable. To deal specifically with the “couples’ issue” some employers have drawn up policies to deal with work place relationships. Some policies are more draconian than others, where they actually seek to ban workplace relationships altogether. Others though, stipulate that “no couples in the same department” are permitted which is generally more acceptable. They may also put in place alternative line management arrangements if colleagues start a relationship and one is the manager.
Most policies are aimed at ensuring that any difficulties do not spill over into work relations, either between the couple or affecting other colleagues. However it is important for employers to remember that everyone is entitled to a private life, even while at work, and if you try to get your employees to sign an agreement which restricts workplace relationships, this may contravene their rights under article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998. The aim of any policy should be to avoid potential conflicts between staff and to protect the business from sexual harassment claims.