07 September 2017
Summer is sadly coming to an end but the same cannot be said for a number of blossoming workplace romances up and down the country. It is estimated that one in four long term relationships start at work so where do employees and employers stand? Do employees have to declare their relationships with colleagues?
Despite some employers taking a discerning view of inter-colleague relationships, from a legal perspective there is nothing which restricts nor regulates relationships between colleagues. Some organisations choose to take a strict approach, implementing policies prohibiting such relationships and requesting either one, or both members of the couple to leave if they become involved in such relationships. In reality, such outright bans on relationships would be unworkable and impracticable.
An American-led trend of implementing a ‘Love Contract Policy’ to regulate office affairs, or even banning them all together can be seen in some organisations. A so called ‘Love Contract’ establishes workplace guidelines for dating or romantically engaging with co-workers. The main element of such a policy is for a contract to be signed by both members of a couple in order to agree on acceptable behaviour within the workplace. From the employer’s perspective, it aims to limit the liability of an organisation in the event that the romantic relationship ends and turns sour.
What is the problem?
Although the idea of happy couples in a workplace can for many appear relatively harmless, many employers are cautious of such relationships for a number of reasons. What happens when the relationship ends? Particularly bitter break-ups could affect and divide the whole workplace. Domestic arguments may spill into the office as well as creating an uncomfortable working environment for colleagues. In more serious cases, sexual harassment claims can arise if one employee engages in any kind of unwanted sexual conduct, be that emails, calls or offensive behaviour.
Where employers pride themselves on transparency and fairness, problems may also occur where couples are required to report to one another, or where one member of the couple is responsible for appraisals and decisions regarding matters such as pay and holidays. Colleagues may feel disgruntled where they believe another is receiving preferential treatment because of their relationship status.
Whilst it would be impossible for employers to ban romantic relationships in the workplace, they can certainly implement a range of measures and policies in the event of a workplace romance blossoming. Protocols and policies may be put in place and boundaries established for when relationships occur. 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 outcomes in the event of a breach of the policy.
Despite there being nothing in law stating that relationships between colleagues must be disclosed, employers usually encourage employees to be upfront and it is seen as best practice (especially where relationships are between managers and subordinates). This helps identify any potential problems early on and in some cases, the reshuffling of duties in order to avoid friction and resentment amongst colleagues.
Ultimately, no matter the size of an organisation, office romances are part and parcel of corporate life. Although organisations may opt for different strategies for dealing with workplace flings – some more draconian than others – no single approach is free from the risk either of a future sex discrimination or harassment claim, or possibly a privacy challenge under human rights legislation.
Thorough policies surrounding acceptable behaviour and guidance as to what may happen in such situations are an employer’s best bet in regulating such relationships. Whatever an employer chooses to implement, it is vital that such standards are applied consistently to everyone throughout the organisation. For further information regarding such policies please contact a member of our team.