Personal relationships at work have always been taboo, largely because they are seen to interfere with the day-to-day running of a business. However, this doesn’t seem to deter amorous couples as a recent survey by careerbuilder.co.uk found that more than 55% of the employees surveyed had dated someone who worked for the same company, although almost half of those had tried to keep it a secret from their employer!

The figures are not surprising. Employees are spending more and more time together, not just because long hours are now part of Britain’s culture, but also because socialising outside work is encouraged as part and parcel of team-building and business development. Furthermore, businesses will often employ those who share the same interests and goals with the result that the workplace can be the best place for single employees to find a long-term, compatible partner.

The Price of Love

So how do office romances affect the workplace? Some of the perils include confidential information about clients, projects and the business’ finances becoming the subject of “pillow talk.” Public displays of affection between colleagues at work might also compromise the authority and reputation of an employer in the eyes of both its staff and customers or clients.

A relationship where one of the parties is in a position of authority can be particularly problematic as that authority is likely to be compromised, for example when one partner is a manager and reviews the other partner’s performance in an appraisal. The media only recently reported that Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, had resigned from his position after it emerged that he had arranged a substantial pay rise and promotion for an employee of the bank who was also his girlfriend.

Couples who are in the first flush of a relationship are also likely to be easily distracted by one another, wasting company time. It was reported in one particular case that a company was taking a former employee to court for a large sum of money because he had neglected his duties during the course of an affair with a colleague. It was alleged that he had cost his employer almost £470,000.

In addition to the practical difficulties, employers are also vulnerable to tribunal claims when employees decide to pair up. A claim for sex discrimination (which can lead to uncapped compensation for the claimant) has the potential to arise in a number of different situations. For example, if a woman is treated less favourably as a result of an affair with her boss or because she is married to a colleague she could argue direct sex discrimination. In such a case the employer would have to show that there was a non discriminatory reason for the treatment - that the employer needed to address an actual or perceived conflict of interests and did not take action on the grounds of the employee’s sex.

An employer should be especially careful when a relationship turns sour. Any refusal by one ex-partner to grant the other a promotion or a pay rise could be interpreted as revenge for ending the relationship and result in a claim for constructive dismissal if the employee decided to resign as a result. Any disciplinary action taken by the manager against the junior employee could be tinged with bias and result in a claim of unfair dismissal. In a recent case, a solicitor who had a relationship with his personal assistant later sacked her because she started seeing someone else. He avoided a finding of sex discrimination but the dismissal was judged to be unfair because the reason for the termination of her employment was his jealousy of her new relationship. Further, unwanted sexual advances by either party in an attempt to rekindle the affair could lead to a claim for sexual harassment. 

Love Contracts

Surveys suggest that employers are ill equipped to deal with these complications, with the majority of employers not having any appropriate policies in place. In the USA, employers have been more “gung-ho” about intervening in relationships at work. Some may be familiar with the American concept of “Love Contracts”. Under these the employees involved agree that they will immediately report any claim for sexual harassment (thereby removing the burden of monitoring the situation from the employer to the employee) and that, if either party has a complaint, they will not bring a claim but will endeavour to resolve the problem internally.

Such a contract is unlikely to be enforceable in the UK. The employee may be able to successfully argue that they were forced to sign the contract and any duress could render the contract void. Further, as such a contract is likely to be signed at the start of any relationship, the employee would be asked to waive his or her rights to any claim before the cause of action had even occurred. Such a waiver would probably not be enforceable, even if the employee had taken independent legal advice. There are various drafting difficulties with such a contract. The couple involved may not know themselves when they should be classed as a couple so what constitutes a “relationship” and how and when the parties must notify their employer must be clearly defined.

Love Contracts will therefore not be appropriate for most employers and have not really taken off in the UK. As an alternative, some UK business have sought to ban workplace romances altogether and some commentators even argue that this may be a breach of the Human Rights Act, in particular an individual’s right to a private life. It may also encourage good employees, more than capable of keeping their private life away from work, to apply for a role elsewhere with more tolerant, liberal employers. An outright ban on relationships in work could also drive one partner to a competitor with the result that pillow talk may become more dangerous, often it may be that having the two employees under the same roof is safer. Other employers may rely on their existing staff handbooks or dignity at work policies to govern the behaviour of their employees in these situations.

The Importance of a “Relationships at Work Policy”

The best way to manage relationships in the workplace is to have a policy specifically drafted to deal with them. Such a policy can recognise every individual’s right to a private, romantic relationship with a colleague but can spell out that:

  • The employees involved must bring the relationship to the attention of their line manager as soon as reasonably practicable.
  • If there is a conflict of interest arising from the relationship, the employer may consider moving one or both of the employees to another team or department, or even terminate the employment of one of the parties if the conflict is very serious and cannot be resolved any other way (this is more likely when both employees are in the same team).
  • The standards required of the employees, including avoiding excessive or inappropriate public displays of affection both in the workplace and at work events (such as Christmas parties), keeping personal communication to a minimum and leaving quarrels at home;
  • What forms of behaviour will be unacceptable following the breakdown of the relationship, with particular reference to unwanted sexual advances and any sexual harassment or dignity at work policy.

The policy should also have a separate section dealing with confidential information if this is particularly important to the employer. It can cover not just the conflicts of interest that arise through romantic relations between those who work together, but through friendship and family ties, both within and outside the organisation. This section of the policy should stress that where employees have access to confidential information (such as payroll details) they must put the interests of the employer first and provide that any disclosure of such information may lead to disciplinary action.

The policy could also have a separate section dealing specifically with gossiping. This can be a problem for employers, particularly when employees have personal relationships with one another, because malicious gossip could amount to harassment if it is not managed properly.

A policy setting out these standards of behaviour, provided it is properly communicated to employees and consistently enforced, will strengthen an employer’s position at tribunal should they be required to defend a claim which has resulted from a romantic liaison in the workplace. A balanced policy will also demonstrate that the company has respect for the private life of its employees, but that a line will be drawn in relation to inappropriate behaviour that damages the interests of the employer and/or its employees.