Don't let Cupid's arrow shoot down your career how to avoid problems when love blossoms at work

Written by
Changeboard Team

15 Feb 2010

15 Feb 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Workplace love its a fact of life

Employers cannot prevent workplace relationships. Its better to acknowledge the reality and have clear guidelines in place for employees about the standards of behaviour expected of them should Cupid pay the office a visit.

Equally, its a regrettable fact of life that the path of true love rarely runs smoothly! Businesses should have robust procedures to deal with problems if they arise or if the relationship turns sour.   

How can you work around the relationship?

Where an employer becomes aware of a relationship between a senior and junior member of staff, the first step should be to investigate the situation. The employer should speak to the employees concerned informally, explain potential concerns and emphasise the importance of maintaining professional behaviour in the office.

If the relationship does cause problems, for example where the employees concerned are in a supervisory position at work, the employer should first consider taking steps which do not involve transferring either employee. For example, if the manager has responsibility for the junior employee's appraisal and there is a concern about favouritism, could another manager carry out the appraisal?

Any such options should be discussed and agreed with the employees. If a satisfactory solution cannot be found, it may be appropriate to transfer one of the employees concerned, either temporarily or permanently. However, employers should be careful when considering a transfer. You must ensure that you have objective reasons for choosing to move one and not the other. If there is a blanket policy simply to transfer the more junior employee, this could result in a claim for sex or age discrimination. If the contract of employment does not allow you to transfer the employee, you will need their consent.

Harassment employers are liable too

Relationships between supervisors and subordinates can be particularly hazardous for employers because of the potential for abuse of power both during the relationship and if the relationship goes wrong. An harassment claim may arise if a junior employee claims that he/she was coerced into a relationship.

As an employer you will be liable for any harassment unless you can show that you took reasonable steps to prevent it. You should ensure that you have a clearly communicated equal opportunities policy which deals with sexual harassment, and all employees should be given training on the policy. It should be made clear to all employees that unwanted attention may give rise to harassment claims. 

Employers can be liable for sexual harassment even if the unwanted attention takes place outside working hours and off the premises, if there is a sufficient connection with work, such as a work social event. Any complaints of inappropriate or unwanted attention should be promptly and thoroughly investigated and, if upheld, a disciplinary sanction up to and including dismissal may be appropriate.

'Love contracts' for loved-up employees?

In light of the potential risks for employers, it is becoming common practice in large US companies to institute relationship bans and 'love contracts'. However, such heavy-handed tactics are often counter-productive. In practice, a relationship ban is unlikely to succeed and can be counter-productive as it will lead to more secrecy about office liaisons. This can cause problems if harassment claims are brought at a later date.

Some employers do require employees either to notify their manager or Human Resources if they become involved with a colleague. Some even require a love contract, where both employees sign an agreement stating that the relationship is consensual and that they understand the sexual harassment policy. 

However, these types of measure are difficult to apply and enforce. At what stage should you require the disclosure of the relationship? Such measures also do little to protect against tribunal claims. If a harassment claim Results from a workplace relationship which has gone wrong, it will not help the employer to argue that the employee failed to disclose the relationship.

Preventing relationship-related risk

A more effective option is to have procedures in place to deal with problems if they arise, and clear guidelines for employees involved in office relationships about the standards of behaviour expected of them.

Before implementing a procedure you should identify where the organisation may be exposed to potential risks such as breach of confidence, conflict of interest or supervisory issues. Managers should be provided with guidance and training on how to implement and monitor the policy.

Relationship rules consider new workplace policy

A policy might include the following provisions to minimise future problems:

  • Standards expected at work (for example, no public displays of affection in the workplace).
  • A requirement to disclose the relationship (perhaps limited to appropriate situations, such as employees within the same team, or where regulatory issues may arise) with an assurance of confidentiality.
  • Your right to reallocate responsibility for certain procedures (for example, appraisals, disciplinary or grievance hearings) to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
  • The possibility that one or both of the couple could be transferred or dismissed if you deem this necessary in the interests of the business. Your ability to do this would be subject to the contract of employment and the other considerations outlined above considerations above, but it is helpful for employees to be aware of the potential outcome.

Employers must also ensure that any policy on workplace relationships is applied in a non-discriminatory manner. In particular, same sex relationships must be treated in the same way as opposite sex relationships to avoid potential claims of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.