Office Romance

In a survey conducted in 2015 by the Institute of Leadership and Management, it was found that 41% of office workers have been involved in a romantic relationship at work. This is, perhaps unsurprising give the amount of time we spend at work, but what happens if the relationship is between a senior manager and a subordinate and it ends acrimoniously? Should employers take proactive steps to manage the workplace relationships or simply operate on the basis that they are private matters which are not their concern?

The right to a private life is enshrined in European Law but it is not difficult to see that if a workplace romance ends unhappily, an employee may link what has happened in their personal life to events in the work place. Is, for example, a poor appraisal by a former partner sexual harassment or a true reflection of performance? Can a former partner ever be truly objective about these things?

Some employers have been known to introduce policies banning workplace relationships, and, in America, “Love Contracts” or “Consensual Relationship Agreements” are used to mitigate the risks of claims being brought. These agreements are given to employees who are starting a workplace relationship. The employees are required to confirm that the relationship is voluntarily and consensual, and that they are aware of the employer’s sexual harassment policies. Such agreements are not standard in the UK, and would not prevent employees from bringing claims for unfair dismissal or discrimination, for example, even if they were.

Staff can legitimately be asked to disclose personal relationships either at the start of or as an ongoing duty during the employment. This may be required for security reasons, for example, or to avoid allegations of favouritism or abuse of authority. However, such information should not be sought arbitrarily or without a clear business rationale. Being seen as too intrusive can have a negative impact on staff morale and can give rise to claims if the data is not handled sensitively or stored securely. What, for example, constitutes a relationship? How do you explore and avoid potential risks if it goes wrong? Is it reasonable to discipline staff if they fail to disclose their relationship?

Having clear policies in place regarding equal opportunities, bullying and harassment and conflicts of interest will help deal with these potentially difficult situations but this, in isolation, is not enough. Staff need to be trained how to implement these policies and deal with these situations appropriately. A culture of openness and trust will also go a long way to avoiding sensitive situations escalating into potential claims.

If you would like advice on implementing policies or staff training please contact Debbie Sadler on 0118 955 9607 or at d.sadler@hewetts.co.uk.

   

Published on 19/02/2016

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