As Valentine’s Day approaches, cupid’s arrow will no doubt be flying around soon. This provides a timely reminder from the “bah humbug brigade” to comment on the implications of “romance” within the workplace.
Whilst it is great to see people finding their soul mate and starting a stable and hopefully long term relationship there are times when this can cause real problems for employers.
Clearly employers cannot impose a blanket ban on romantic relationships within the workplace – if nothing else it is a breach of an individual’s Human Rights. However, when relationships within the workplace do develop they can have a negative impact. Employers should therefore keep an eye out for:
An increase in down time due to “workplace” gossip;
A decline in work standards;
Actual or perceived favouritism;
Conflicts of interest and confidentiality issues.
If two colleagues who work together are in a relationship, what should you do?
Explain to both your concerns about them working together and the need for them to act properly at work. Remind them of the importance of the need for them to separate their personal and professional lives and that if difficulties arise you will have to discuss things with them.
If the relationship creates work difficulties there are a few practical steps you could take. These include:
A) Transferring one of the couple to another department
This might be appropriate if it is a manager/subordinate relationship but check the employment contract to see if it allows you to transfer the employee to a different department/location. If not, you will need the worker’s agreement.
You must always act reasonably to avoid breaching the duty of trust and confidence and you should avoid such as a transfer by demotion, or to a different location some distance away.
Dismissing an employee solely for having a relationship at work is very likely to be unfair. Whilst you may be able to fairly dismiss if you have good reason to believe that the relationship is likely to damage the business, dismissal should only be a last resort after exploring all other alternatives. You should of course, seek professional advice before taking any action that may result in a dismissal or likely to result in a claim of Constructive Dismissal.
Transferring or dismissing only one of the couple could lead to a successful sex discrimination claim (assuming this is an opposite sex relationship). To reduce this risk, carefully consider which employee should be transferred or dismissed and why, using objective reasons and documenting the process.
Sexual harassment and Equal Opportunities Policies
When a work relationship ends and bad feelings result it may well lead the rejected and aggrieved party to make a sexual harassment allegation as a form of revenge or one employee may continue to pursue their former partner who then complains of harassment. As this is work place based it will be for the employer to sort out.
Employers will be vicariously liable for any harassment, unless they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent it. An employers best protection is to have an appropriate equal opportunities policy, which specifically deals with sexual harassment. The policy should be clearly communicated to all employees, and staff should be given training in the policy.
Policy on Relationships at Work
While it may be unrealistic to attempt to stop work relationships from blossoming in the first place, an appropriate policy can help avoid the negative consequences that might otherwise grow from an office romance.
There are various provisions you could set out to avoid future problems, including:
Behaviour at work (i.e. no public displays of affection during working hours or on company premises).
A requirement to disclose the relationship (perhaps limited to appropriate situations, such as employees within the same team, or where regulatory issues may arise), with an assurance of confidentiality.
Your right to reallocate responsibility for certain procedures (for example, appraisals, disciplinary or grievance hearings) to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Please contact us if you wish further advice, training on Equal Opportunities or a Relationship Policy, please ring us on 03456 446 006.