How should employers deal with workplace relationships?

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Valentine’s Day is almost upon us and for some that means celebrating a romantic relationship with a colleague. Romantic workplace relationships can be a sensitive issue for employers – the private lives of employees should be respected, but at the same time the interests of the employer may be impacted by complications arising in, and as a result of, a relationship.

For many, workplaces are a social, as well as a working, environment and colleagues can become close friends. Sometimes it goes further than that with employees entering into romantic relationships, which is where problems can potentially occur. That’s not to say that all romantic workplace relationships cause issues, many do not have a knock-on effect in the workplace – however, they can occasionally lead to difficulties.

In certain circumstances, other employees may object to the relationship; for example, if a manager is in a relationship with a more junior employee, there may be accusations of favouritism. Team relationships can quickly turn sour which can impact upon productivity, so the business will ultimately suffer.

What is often worse, however, is the fallout if the workplace relationship ends less than amicably. For instance, if you have two people in a team who do not want to communicate with each other after their relationship comes to an end it can cause problems for the employer and employees who have to work with them. The problem can escalate to something more serious if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other does not, potentially leading to claims of sexual harassment (the relationship was consensual, but the unwanted conduct afterwards is not).

Organisations that face such situations potentially need to consider whether to move one employee to another team (if possible) but care must be taken around who to move and how the employer goes about doing this. Alternatively, the employer may decide to dismiss one of the employees if it becomes apparent that they cannot work together, and a team move is not practicable. However, it is worth keeping in mind that this will likely lead to claims in an employment tribunal relating to unfair dismissal and potentially discrimination.

The new duty to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees (set to come into effect in October 2024) will further increase the stakes as a failure to take reasonable steps could result in an increase in any sexual harassment award by up to 25% – with compensation for discrimination claims being unlimited this could be costly.

Reducing risk

To reduce the risk of workplace romances causing issues for employers, it is important to have an employment policy governing relationships at work. The aim should be to ensure that staff don’t commit – and are not open to – acts of:

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

Any policy relating to workplace relationships should clarify the behaviour you expect from employees, for example:

  • the relationship shouldn’t affect their work;
  • there should be no favouritism or preferential treatment, especially if one employee is more senior than the other in the relationship;
  • the relationship has to be declared; and
  • one party may potentially have to move roles if there is a conflict or issue with the couple continuing to work closely together.

Some companies do specify in employment contracts that employees can’t form an intimate relationship with a colleague, however this is likely to be unnecessary in most workplaces.

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