Valentine’s Day has been and gone, spring is just around the corner and love is in the air … as an employer, workplace romance is lovely but do you know the risks, and where you stand if love falters between your employees?
This article covers the potential pitfalls with workplace romances, what to do about ‘banter’ and ‘locker-room talk’, and top tips for getting the balance just right.
The modern working day stretches far beyond the usual nine to five as employers are emphasising the benefits of teamwork and effective employee engagement, employees are spending an increased amount of time with their colleagues, employees are regularly attending post-work staff nights out and team-building events, and employers are encouraging employees to work closely together.
To this end, it is no surprise that romantic relationships are more common now than ever, with studies conducted in 2015 and 2016 both in the UK and the US claiming that more than half of professionals had been involved in a workplace romance.
It is usual that employers would be wary of the potential effect of any workplace romance on their business’ productivity (or loss of) – and what about the legal and personnel issues?
The risks of romance in the workplace
The risks surrounding romantic relationships in the workplace can occur at all stages:
Colleagues may often engage in friendly banter or light-hearted comments, which are more common in certain industries and workplaces than others. The issues here arise where things are taken too far, or comments are misconstrued or misinterpreted. Employers should be sensitive to the fact that employees will have different boundaries with regards to the level of humour or banter they consider to be acceptable.
Employers should be wary not to take the Donald Trump approach and dismiss potentially offensive comments as ‘locker-room’ talk. Individuals could begin to feel uncomfortable in the workplace, but may not feel able to address the issues with the individual who has made comments. In these situations, things may escalate to claims of sexual harassment, discrimination and grievances if not dealt with accordingly.
Publicised workplace relationships may cause friction with other staff members, particularly where they involve a senior staff member and a subordinate, including jealousy or accusations of favouritism with promotions and pay rises, particularly if they are within the same department. While one possible way to resolve this is to move one employee to another department, this may expose employers to suggestions of diminishing career opportunities or claims of less favourable treatment and sex discrimination. Where colleagues are romantically involved, they may find it difficult to act in a professional manner, and fail to maintain a boundary between their professional and personal lives. This may cause others to feel uncomfortable, and may also affect the atmosphere and professionalism in the workplace.
Breakups are difficult enough without having to work with or be in close proximity to an ex-partner. These situations have the potential to cause tension in the workplace, and may prompt office gossip, which will have a knock-on effect on productivity and workplace dynamic. Colleagues may also become involved in the situation, and could end up siding with one employee or another.
Policies: help or hindrance?
Common HR guidance suggests implementing a policy on workplace relationships to clarify what standards of conduct are expected. However, such policies would be practically difficult to implement, and would essentially seek to regulate personal relationships.
Blanket bans on employee relationships are:
- not appropriate
- may be discriminatory
- could breach Human Rights legislation.
They also encourage secrecy and sneaking around, and where any fall-out occurs, managers are not able to control the outcome or manage the situations effectively.
There are, however, policies commonly found in employee handbooks which may assist in these situations:
- Equal Opportunities Policy – clarifying that discrimination will not be tolerated and that all employees will be awarded fair opportunities, regardless of their status or any personal characteristics.
- Bullying and Harassment Policy – sets boundaries and lays down a process to clarify how matters will be dealt with.
- A comprehensive Grievance Policy and Procedure – ensure that employees feel comfortable enough to raise a complaint in the knowledge that it will be dealt with in a professional and structured manner.
Personal v Professional
Employees should be clear as to what conduct is deemed acceptable in the workplace, and how they should conduct themselves, particularly where workplace relationships are concerned. This is only achievable where employers set these standards without impeding on their employees’ freedom to carry out their work and express themselves through individual friendships and acquaintances.
Employers should be wary that a romantic workplace relationship doesn’t actually damage another workplace relationship (as a result of favouritism or jealousy for example), as this could have a knock-on effect on business, particularly in terms of productivity, mood in the workplace, and could also come across to customers and clients in a negative manner.
Conflicts of interest are also likely with workplace relationships, for example where a HR manager is dating another employee, who is then subject to formal disciplinary procedures, or a senior manager who becomes involved with his assistant.
Top tips for getting the work-love balance just right
While employers may never face any difficult situations as a result of workplace romances, and may in fact welcome them, it is useful to be wary of the potential risks, and to be aware of how best to deal with them:
- Always manage the situation effectively and consistently.
- Communication is key – make sure everyone knows where they stand with regards to relationships in the workplace.
- Boundaries – ensure everyone knows what behaviour is appropriate, and what conduct will not be tolerated.
- Be certain about the existence of any relationship between colleagues – don’t rely on office gossip to justify speaking to employees about a suspected relationship or supposed inappropriate behaviour. This could make an employee feel targeted or uncomfortable, and may give rise to claims of constructive dismissal.
- Where employers suspect, or it comes to their attention, that unacceptable behaviour has occurred, they should act promptly and consistently, and seek to investigate the events in a sensitive manner.
- Seek legal advice in tricky situations, ideally as soon as they arise!
If you have any questions about managing workplace relationships or updating your policies, with no obligation please contact Justine, one of our employment law experts.