When bosses play cupid - can your workplace ban office romances?

Gill McAteer
Gill McAteer

As Valentine’s Day approaches and peoples thoughts turn to romance, employers and employees alike are unsure on where they stand with office relationships, Gill McAteer at Citation explains the rules.

Although romance doesn't usually go hand in hand with the 9-5, almost one fifth of relationships in Britain starting in the workplace according to YouGov research*.

Office romances can either be the basis of a rewarding relationship, based on a shared interest and common ground, or a move that will damage your career and lead to awkward moments galore at the water cooler for all.

And what if you’re a business owner and you're aware that there are relationships happening within your team, but you’re not quite sure how to manage them or even if you need to do anything at all?

With Valentine's Day around the corner, Gill McAteer from Citation gives  the lowdown on what your boss really thinks of office romances.

Gill says: “When it comes to workplace romances, many employers don’t know how to handle them or where they stand.

Whilst it may be a step too far to ban them completely, as this would be too great an interference into employees’ private lives, if an employer feels strongly about workplace romances, they can put specific policies in place to set out their stance.

This can be a minefield but it should cover off things like:

 

  • Whether or not confidential disclosure of the romance is required and, if so, who to.  However, it should be considered whether this is always needed or more reasonably, whether disclosure should be required where there’s a conflict of interest, for example the relationship involves senior and more junior colleagues.
  • If disclosure is needed, it’s very difficult to put an exact timeframe on when it should be brought to the employer’s attention though
  • The ground rules and expected standard of conduct in work if colleagues enter a romantic relationship, including any “red lines” that should not be crossed.  This would include behaving professionally in work at all times, including if the relationship sours.  
  •  A reminder that pursuing an unwanted relationship or inappropriate behaviour towards a colleague could be deemed to be sexual harassment.  
  • Such a policy should carefully balance between the business needs and the right of employees to have a private life.

“If bosses are serious about enforcing their policy, it’s important that everyone in the company has read, understood, and signed it.”

Can you get the sack or be disciplined for a workplace romance?

“Yes, in theory. Although it’s unlikely that someone could be dismissed or disciplined simply for being in a consensual workplace relationship, there can be instances where office relationships can cross the line. If there was deemed to be any inappropriate behaviour in work or if a boss was being unfairly lenient or biased towards their more junior partner in targets set or tasks given.

“My advice to bosses is to consider, are you being consistent? You run the risk of allegations of discrimination if you’re not treating everyone the same.

“One scenario is if an employer knows that two employees are dating and is ok with it, or turns a blind eye, they cannot then discipline a married employee having an affair with a co-worker, as this could be classed as discrimination based on marital status.

“Similarly, if you move one partner to a different department but leave the other in place, there could in some circumstances be a claim of sex discrimination.”

What about break ups?

But what about if that once-blissful romance goes wrong and you’re left having to face your ex every day by the photocopier? Will your boss be worried about your conduct at work?

Gill continues: “I think when an employer gets really concerned is when a relationship turns sour and that starts to negatively affect workplace dynamics - no business wants that and that's when as an employee you really need to think about your conduct at work and try to separate work and personal life.  In more serious cases, if one party ends the relationship and is then harangued or pressurised by the other, this could even lead to claims of sexual harassment or sex discrimination.

“For an employer perspective, if things start to become difficult, I would advise bosses to take the employees in question separately to one side for an informal chat and let them  know how their break-up is affecting the wider team and remind them of what behaviours you expect in the workplace whilst remaining understanding - especially if it’s been a difficult breakup.  The grievance process would always be open to employees, but hopefully matters can be resolved before it gets to that stage.”

*https://yougov.co.uk/topics/relationships/articles-reports/2020/02/13/how-do-brits-find-love

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