Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and love is in the air. According to a recent study by the Association of Accounting Technicians, the average working person in the UK will experience at least one office romance in their lifetime.
While human nature may occasionally reign supreme amongst co-workers who spend the lion’s share of their time with each other in such close proximity, navigating through a budding relationship at the office can be a somewhat tedious process for HR, given the many legal and ethical factors that come into play. We show you how you can strike the perfect balance between respecting the privacy of your employees, and protecting the interests of your organisation.
So just how common are office romances?
Although office romances are frowned upon in many organisations, research shows that they occur more frequently than one might think – and even among HR professionals!
In People Management’s survey of 553 readers, half of HR professionals admitted they’d had a relationship with a colleague and, in one fifth of cases, one or both of them was already in a relationship. The figures are hardly surprising when taking into consideration that a recent survey by Business Insider revealed 90 percent of us have been attracted to a colleague. And of the 54 percent who said they had done the deed with a colleague, 49 percent had done so at the office.
In a recent study by the Institute of Leadership and Management, 41 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced a workplace romance of some sort, while another survey by Fox Williams Solicitors showed that the majority of workplace relationships (65 percent) occurred amongst peers.
You can't legislate matters of the heart
While there may have been a time when a number of employers in the UK were toying with the idea of US-style ‘love contracts’, whereby members of staff who are romantically involved with each other are required to sign a document stating that their relationship is voluntary, many legal and HR experts have advised against it. One of these is Sarah Churchman, Head of Diversity and Inclusion and Employee Wellbeing at the reputable Accountancy firm, PWC, who believes that such ‘consent agreements’ intrude on private lives and, under UK law, offer scant protection against potential sexual harassment claims if an affair turns sour.
“You can’t legislate against office romances or indeed falling in love,” she observes, “Any outright ban would be totally unworkable. However, you do have to put in protocols for when relationships occur because there may well be commercial considerations to consider and it may also be necessary to relocate one of the lovers to a different department.”
Fundamental laws associated with office romance
Although there are no laws that prohibit romance in the workplace, there are legal issues that could arise if the romance is not addressed and dealt with correctly by an employer. This is why it is so important for employers to ensure that they have a policy in place to minimise the risk.
Workplace relationships can potentially give rise to a host of employment law issues which include, but are not limited to:
- Sex discrimination
- Sexual harassment
- Harassment under the Protection of Harassment Act 1997
- Breach of contract, and
- Unfair dismissal claims
Organisations can find themselves in legal hot water should a workplace relationship go awry. Paula Volkmer, Employment solicitor at EDF Energy, noted that there are significant pitfalls to failed intimate affairs at this office, including sex discrimination where a more junior employee is asked to transfer teams following a failed romance, as well as sexual harassment or victimisation claims.
Fiona Wilson, professor of organisational behaviour at Glasgow University, added that literature on the topic clearly shows that because women are often lower in the hierarchy, they are more likely to lose their jobs or get transferred. If an employee decides to make a claim against these procedures, it can prove costly to employers who have been too hasty in letting their feelings dictate how they treat a staff member turned romantic partner. Such was case in 2013, when a tribunal ruled that the chief executive of a £2 billion property firm had unfairly dismissed his PA after his wife found out about their affair. Although the PA, who was set to receive a large pay-out, failed in her claim for sex discrimination, the tribunal agreed she had been subject to harassment by her employer.
Concerns surrounding conflict of interest
Employers are likely to be concerned about members of staff putting their relationship above the needs of the organisation. For example, if a senior member of staff is in a relationship with a more junior colleague within the same division, there may be a perception that there is an increased risk of a breach in confidentiality, or that there is a sense of favouritism based on the intimate nature of the relationship rather than professional merit.
In order to minimise the risks outlined above, employers should:
- Request members of staff, particularly those with line management responsibilities, to notify them of any personal relationships at work
- Change reporting lines and management structures where it seems to make sense to do this
- Ensure that members of staff who are engaged in relationships with colleagues are not involved in any management decisions involving their partners (because of the importance of such decisions being seen to be impartial)
- Remind staff of their confidentiality obligations, and take disciplinary action where necessary
Policies and legal recourse
Employers hold the right to discipline or even dismiss an employee if they fail to comply with reasonable management instructions and policies. For instance, if a senior manager has failed to disclose, in accordance with an employer’s policies, a personal relationship with a junior member of their team, the employer would be entitled to take disciplinary action against the manager for their non-compliance.
However, employers must ensure that their workplace relationship guidelines are indeed reasonable enough for employees to comply with them. It is important to bear in mind that the right to privacy under the Human Rights Act 1998 is a qualified right which can be limited lawfully in a number of scenarios, including where this is necessary for the protection of the rights of others.
Do all office romances end in tears?
One answer to this question is likely please all closet office lovers. According to William Rogers, chief executive of radio group UKRD, notes that although some office relationships can be a complete nightmare, it can sometimes be just a delight that the business has brought two people together.
“We have interdepartmental relationships and it’s had little impact: if anything it can cement the engagement and relationship between the individuals concerned and the business,” he says. “Generally speaking, life is made much more difficult if it is a manager and a member of their team who have the relationship. Irrespective of how careful they are, human nature is such that it can create real problems. If there is the slightest sense of any favouritism, you are in big trouble.”
While employers may not be able to stave away the romantic urges of their employees, following the advice above will help to ensure that such office affairs are handled appropriately and ethically, thus minimising the risk of legal repercussions further down the line.
*Disclaimer: Policies regarding office romances may differ from one company to another. The views in this article are offered as friendly, fun advice to employers, and should not be used as legal guidelines.
Are you an expert at managing love at the office?
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