How should an employer deal with workplace romances?

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We consider how employers should deal with the sensitive issue of workplace relationships, especially if they start to impact on the working environment.

What is the problem with workplace romances?

The private lives of employees should be respected. However, there is the potential for the interests of the employer being seriously affected by complications arising in a relationship.

Many employees regard their workplaces as a social as well as a business environment and consider many of their colleagues as personal friends. Sometimes it goes a step further with employees entering into romantic relationships; this is when problems can occur. Obviously not all romantic workplace relationships become an issue. In fact many do not impact on the working environment. However, they can sometimes cause difficulties.

In some cases, other employees will object to the relationship. For example where a manager or supervisor is in a relationship with a junior employee, there may be accusations of favouritism which could lead to resentment. Team relationships can quickly deteriorate damaging productivity and the business will suffer.

Often worse is the potential fall out if the relationship fails. Two people in a team who do not want to speak to each other after their relationship breaks down can be problematic for the business. Things can escalate to create even more serious issues if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other does not, which can lead to claims of sexual harassment.

If it becomes apparent that two employees can no longer work together, an employer may be faced with having to decide to dismiss one. However, this will inevitably lead to the risk of unfair dismissal and discrimination claims in the Employment Tribunal.

What are the risks to the employer?

In one case (Kaufmann & Co. Solicitors v Schofield 2002) where a claim of sex discrimination was upheld, the claimant had been deceived into thinking that the person she had been romantically involved with had left the firm resulting in her redundancy, while in fact he was kept out of sight continuing his employment with the firm working from home.

Claims of sex discrimination are likely to fail if it is found that the dismissal was made because of the breakdown of the relationship and that the employee’s gender was irrelevant. There may be evidence that the end of a romantic relationship has resulted in a breakdown of the working relationship.

Which employee should be dismissed or moved to another department or location can be the most difficult issue for an employer to navigate. Clearly there should be no gender basis for the decision. In most cases decisions should be made based on the practicalities of how the business will operate going forward. However, in instances of inappropriate conduct by one employee to another, the victim of the sex discrimination should not be the one dismissed (or moved).

The recent case of Graham Ellis v 1) Ms K Bacon 2) Advanced Fire Solutions Ltd (In Administration) considered the issue of whether a dismissal following a break-up might amount to discrimination on the grounds of the protected characteristic of marriage.

Ms Bacon had married the managing director and majority shareholder of Advanced Fire Solutions after joining the company as a bookkeeper. She went on to become a director of the company. After deciding to separate from her husband she was suspended, subjected to false allegations and then dismissed.

Her claim that she had been subject to marriage discrimination ultimately failed. The key issue was whether she had been treated unfavourably because she was married to the managing director. The appropriate question to ask was whether an unmarried woman whose circumstances were otherwise the same as hers, including being in a close relationship with the managing director, would have been treated differently. The fact that they were married was therefore irrelevant; the same would have happened to her even if they weren’t married but were instead in a relationship with one another.

How can an employment policy help?

Such cases show the importance of having in place an employment policy which governs relationships in the workplace. The aim should be to prevent staff committing (and being open to allegations of) acts of:

  • inappropriate behaviour
  • favouritism
  • abuse of authority
  • conflict of interest.

The policy should clarify the behaviour you expect from employees in a relationship. For example that the relationship shouldn’t affect their work, that there should be no favouritism or preferential treatment, especially where one employee is more senior than the other, that the relationship has to be declared, and/ or that one party may have to move roles if there is a conflict or potential issue with the couple continuing to work closely together.

Although probably unnecessary in most workplaces, some companies go so far as to specify in employment contracts that employees cannot form romantic relationships with someone they work with.

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