How to ensure office romances don't end in managerial tears
Countless workplace couples will be celebrating Valentine’s Day – but their employers would do well to set up guidelines on office romance
It is highly likely that many of the couples who share presents and candle-lit meals this Valentine’s Day first met in an office – and indeed, may still work together. After all, the average person spends most of their waking hours at work. But while those romantic opportunities have their charm, it is nonetheless wise for employers to introduce policies that will protect their businesses from any potential disputes that may stem from workplace relationships.
According to Phil Pepper – partner at employment law firm Shakespeares – managers should bring staff up to speed on the rules they have put in place to cover workplace relationships, particularly if those rules take a hard line.
“Some employers have a policy dealing with workplace relationships,” he said, “and as with other policies, they should make sure that all staff are aware of it. For businesses where workplace relationships are considered a bigger risk, or where there is a history of litigation linked to them, it is not unusual for employers to ban such relationships altogether.”
He explained: “Staff who get involved in a relationship with a colleague should start by checking if any policy exists, if they don’t already know. If there isn’t one, then the couple should be upfront with their employer about the relationship as this could help to avoid potential issues, misunderstandings and workplace disputes further down the line.”
Risks for employers who allow relationships to flourish within their businesses can include breaches of confidentiality – particularly if the pair share interdepartmental information, or one of the individuals is in a greater position of power (e.g., manager or director). Under the terms of most employment contracts, such breaches could lead to disciplinary proceedings and potential dismissal. Conflicts could also arise if the couple operate in the same team, given the potential tensions and allegations of favouritism that could arise.
Shakespeares advises bosses to also weigh up other associated pitfalls by carrying out detailed risk assessments of relationships, particularly if senior employees are involved. Even apparently less-important factors – such as whether any specific arrangements are required for the couple when taking holiday together – need to be thoroughly considered, as they may place overt pressure on areas of the business.
While those potential complications could be successfully managed, bosses must also think very carefully about whether they require the “nuclear option” of a ban – a weapon that could easily backfire. In one, recent example, a former employee at Port Vale Football Club managed to win a sexual discrimination case against the club at a tribunal. The claimant successfully argued that her dismissal for having a relationship with one of the club’s players was unfair, and that because no action had been taken against the player, she had been discriminated against.
With that in mind, Pepper argues that imposing a ban on workplace relationships is a radical decision for an employer to take. “It could be counterproductive to impose a ban on all working relationships,” he said, “as employers would be obliged to apply any policy consistently – which could result in the dismissal of both parties regardless of their role or seniority. That could have significant implications for the business.”
He added: “There are other ways to deal with workplace relationships. Even without a policy, there is no reason why specific arrangements or a separate agreement can’t be put in place so that the employees are reminded of any equal opportunities and/or bullying and harassment policies and can continue their relationship without it disrupting workplace productivity and affecting the wider business.”
Advice for employers
Carry out a risk assessment to identify potential issues and liabilities
Make all staff aware of the consequences should they get involved in a workplace relationship
If there is a policy in place for workplace relationships, make sure it is communicated regularly and be prepared to enforce it
Manage with care – the Port Vale case shows how employers can get caught out if workplace relationships are mismanaged
Advice for employees
Check if there is a policy in place on workplace relationships before you disclose your relationship
If there isn’t a policy, it is best to be open and honest about it and tell your employer about the relationship at an early stage
Reassure your employer that you understand the potential repercussions, and that you are familiar with any relevant policies such as equal opportunities and/or bullying in the workplace and harassment
Communicate your willingness to negotiate about any practical management issues that could arise, such as problems caused by taking holidays together
For further thoughts about ethical conduct at work, download the recent CMI report The MoralDNA of Performance.