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Keeping Cupid in check - dealing with relationships in the workplace

With Valentine’s Day approaching, it seems an appropriate time to consider potential problems that may arise from workplace romances.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, it seems an appropriate time to consider potential problems that may arise from workplace romances.

According to Vault.com’s annual office romance survey: Of those who have dated a co-worker, 42 percent said they had an ongoing, casual relationship; 36 percent said they had a “random office hook up;” 29 percent had been in a serious, long-term relationship; and 16 percent had met their spouse or partner at work.

Relationships at work therefore are very much a fact of life but they can create difficulties for HR departments under pressure to contain workplace distractions. In reality the only outcome excessive management will achieve is to discourage employees from being open and honest with their employer and to force relationships ‘underground’.

One of the biggest employment law headlines of last year was that McDonalds had fired its CEO, Steve Easterbrook, for having a relationship with a junior employee. McDonalds accepted the affair had been consensual but held that Easterbrook “violated company policy” and had “shown poor judgement” for engaging in such activity. A number of large US companies have similar policies to discourage relationships or requiring those entering into them to declare the relationship to HR. The so called “love contract” is an agreement that employees in a relationship can be asked to sign. It might state that the relationship is consensual, voluntary and that the parties are aware of the employer’s sexual harassment policy. It can also emphasise the employer’s rules on conduct and behaviour, specifying that the relationship must not affect their work.

Such contracts are rare in the UK. The Human Rights Act 1998 gives employees a right to a private life, and that includes personal and sexual relationships. Any policy seeking to curtail or influence the right to a private life could be difficult to enforce and would likely be unlawful. Indeed for employers a good guide is that they should only seek to control employees’ actions when they are working, or where their actions will have a direct impact on the workplace.

So why do some employers have a fear of workplace relationships and is it sensible to have in place a written policy on personal relationships at work?

The reality is that relationships can be a distraction and can affect work. It can also, for example, be problematic if parties are perceived by colleagues to be spending too much time with each other (over non-work related matters) However, any policy introduced needs to strike a balance between protecting the employer’s legitimate business interests and the rights of employees to a private life.

Ordinarily such a policy will allow relationships between colleagues as long as they do not negatively influence the employees’ conduct in the workplace and should require the parties to inform a manager when a relationship has started or ended. Indeed, the ending of a relationship is perhaps one of the most difficult workplace issues to deal with. Any prior warning affords management the opportunity to prepare for any fall-out and to remind the employees of expected behaviours.

Employers can use the policy to define any “inappropriate conduct” that could lead to disciplinary action. Such action could be taken, against a party harassing the other post relationship or engaging in intimate activities during work time; for example kissing; or the sending of inappropriate communications. Employees should be reminded that communications such as emails or telephone calls should be kept professional as they may be monitored or intercepted by the employer for legitimate reasons.

Relationships between individuals where one has managerial authority over the other are more likely to be prone to difficulties, especially when such authority necessitates involvement over the allocation of work, overtime, appraisal grading, promotion (or demotion) and the signing off of holiday, pay increases, bonus payments etc. Problems may also present themselves where one party is in possession of private and confidential information that could be disclosed by ‘pillow talk’.

It is for this reason that the policy could reserve the right (when there is a conflict of interest) to transfer one or both employees to another department, or to change their reporting lines.

While no employer wants to be a killjoy or to blunt Cupid’s arrow, there is a real risk that if workplace passions are not controlled difficulties may arise. For this reason, employers are encouraged to introduce realistic relationship policies.

If you'd like any further information about this update, please contact Andrew Forrest, National Head of Weightmans HR Rely.

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