Valentine’s Day: Potential problems with workplace romances

Published : Jan 18, 2018

Can employers have rules on personal relationships at work? Is it harassment for a worker to ask a colleague out on a date? Is it ever appropriate for a line manager to interfere in an employee’s love life? With Valentine’s Day approaching, we look at potential problems with workplace romances.

With so many people meeting their life partners in the workplace what can be done to ensure protection from harassment and inappropriate conduct. 

Many employers will be fine with two colleagues having a relationship as long as their conduct does not affect their work. They may introduce a ‘Relationship Policy’. A typical policy will allow relationships between colleagues as long as they do not negatively influence the employees’ conduct in the workplace. The employer could require the couple to inform a manager when a relationship is initiated.

Relationships between individuals where one has managerial authority over the other are likely to be frowned upon. 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. This should be done only following consultation with both.

Employers can use the policy to define “inappropriate conduct” that could lead to disciplinary action. A broad ban could be included in the policy on “intimate behaviour” during work time, for example kissing, touching or holding hands. The employer can also require employees in a relationship to keep communications in the workplace professional, particularly electronic communications. A couple working together might use their work email or some other form of internal communication to send each other inappropriate messages, they should be reminded that such communications may be monitored or intercepted by their employer for legitimate reasons.

As with any workplace policy, the rules should be applied consistently to everyone, including senior managers. While senior staff should be setting an example, it is also important that they do not abuse their power, for example, by initiating relationships with junior staff over whom they may hold sway. The rules should be applied whatever the couple’s protected characteristics. For example, the rules should not be applied more strictly to a same-sex couple than they are to a heterosexual couple. This would be a clear-cut case of direct sexual orientation discrimination.

Some employers may want to have a blanket ban on any form of personal relationship between work colleagues. However, this is likely to be both unrealistic and a breach of the Human Rights Act. The only thing a complete ban will achieve is to drive the relationship underground, discouraging employees from being open with their employer. Human rights principles will not generally stretch to allow employers to place wholesale restrictions on relationships between two consenting adults.

Employees with romantic feelings towards a colleague may worry whether or not it is sexual harassment to ask them out. As with many employment law questions, the answer is “it depends”. An employment tribunal deciding a sexual harassment claim will look at the context.

There is unlikely to be sexual harassment if an employee simply fancies a colleague at the same level and asks him or her out.

Even if the colleague does not feel the same way and says no, as long as the employee does not persist and accepts the rejection with good grace, a sexual harassment allegation would probably not stick. However, an employee could have a valid claim for sexual harassment if a colleague persists even though the employee has made their feelings clear. Sexual harassment could also occur if someone uses a position of power to make sexual advances. For example, a manager asking a junior employee out in return for a promotion or pay rise will be committing direct sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

As with many situations involving human beings, it’s complex and difficult to cover all angles and no policy will cover every eventuality but it’s better for employers to have a policy than not. If you have concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace or your business needs a ‘Relationship Policy’ contact EL4U we can help.

Extracts from an article originally published by Expert HR Published date 10 February 2017 Publisher RBI Source: Personnel Today

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