Valentine’s Day is here again and for many employers, this serves as a reminder that love can be found in many places, including at work. With people dedicating more time to their careers, relationships between colleagues are now common.
Although romance in the air may increase morale, employee relationships can be problematic for employers for several reasons:
- Productivity can decrease, both for the happy couple who are too smitten to concentrate on their tasks and for their co-workers as gossip spreads around the office.
- Confidentiality and impartiality may be compromised as the boundaries between employees’ work lives and home lines become blurred and they feel the need to tell their partner every detail of their day.
- Other colleagues may feel uncomfortable with public displays of affection in the office.
- When a relationship is between a manager and a subordinate, accusations of preferential treatment are common and the relationship is likely to prejudice decisions regarding discipline, promotion and pay rises.
- If the relationship doesn’t work out, there may be a difficult atmosphere in the office and if the break up was not mutual and one partner continues to pursue the other, a potential sexual harassment claim.
Can employers ban these relationships or dismiss colleagues who engage in them? Probably not. Apart from secretive relationships being difficult to prove and a ban being tricky to enforce, this may be in breach of an employee’s right to a private life under the Human Rights Act 1998. Employers can, however, put a policy in place which requires employees in relationships with colleagues to be discreet, to behave in a professional manner and to declare any relationships where one person has authority over the other at work.
The USA has taken this one step further and “love contracts” are a feature of some workplaces; colleagues in relationships with each other sign to confirm that their relationship is consensual and that they are aware of the workplace’s sexual harassment policy. However, in the UK this contract would not prevent a tribunal claim as employees cannot sign away their rights to protection from sexual harassment.
Employers could consider moving colleagues in relationships with each other to different departments if they have good reason to believe that their work is being adversely affected. However, they would need to be careful that they do not take sides and that both people are treated in the same way so as not to invite accusations of gender discrimination. Similarly, employers should be consistent in their attitude to all office relationships, whether they are heterosexual, same-sex, married or unmarried. Disciplinary issues such as breaching confidentiality should be treated in accordance with the employer’s usual policy.