A good working relationship between colleagues results in a happy and productive workplace. We want our employees to get on, and work well together. However, what if a friendship turns in to a workplace romance? And what if that romance fizzles away and things turn sour?
Apparently, 48% of us will date a co-worker at one point or another. 84% of employers are not happy with their employees dating and 21% of people have quit a job due to awkwardness following a doomed romance. *
There is nothing in UK employment legislation to prevent relationships at work and in reality, many people do meet their life partner at work, and are happy and able to work together in harmony.
However, when private and business relationships cross over in this way, there can be a number of concerns from a management perspective. For example:
– Managing holiday requests could be challenging in smaller teams
– Concerns that a relationship breakdown could result in harassment or discrimination claims, or a complete breakdown in the working relationship between the colleagues
– The company stance on public displays of affection, and the impact of the relationship on other employees
– Do you consider moving employees involved in an office romance (or following a relationship breakdown) into different teams, and if so, who do you move and why as to avoid grievances and potential discrimination issues.
– Case law has also found that not recruiting a female employee into a department as she would be reporting directly in to her husband amounted to indirect sex discrimination**
In the USA, the concept of a workplace ‘love contract’ has developed, which essentially sets out that the parties agree that the relationship is voluntary and consensual, reminds them of workplace policies in terms of harassment and to act professionally at work, and details what to do should there be a conflict. It’s intended to limit the employer’s liability in the event of a harassment claim or other related litigation, but it doesn’t always workout that way.
We have no such concept in UK employment law. However, we are seeing more and more employers seeking to regulate personal relationships in the workplace – with ‘relationships at work’ policies arguably the best defence for employers against future problems.
A well drafted ‘relationships at work’ policy will set out the expected standards of behaviour from employees and act as a guidance point for managers, to ensure a fair and consistent approach. It will remind employees of their obligations towards colleagues, and the company rules and procedures regarding discrimination and harassment.
Whilst the existence of a workplace relationship itself is highly unlikely to amount to conduct that would warrant disciplinary action (unless there were inappropriate behaviour for example), a breach of the ‘relationships at work’ policy could potentially be a fair reason to discipline staff.
It is also suggested that promoting a more open practice of disclosure about relationships at work will allow the employer to assess whether it needs to take steps to prevent any adverse effect on the workplace.
Whatever a business decides to do, there is no doubt that effective communication and awareness of/compliance with key workplace policies, including anti-harassment and discrimination policies, will play a role. As an employee, a clear understating of boundaries in respect of acceptable workplace behaviour will also be important.
*Workplace Study: Office Romance Statistics (rebootonline.com)
** Bedfordshire Constabulary v Graham  IRLR 239