Workplace relationships, petites aventures and flirtation between employees are a headache that many employers have to suffer. The management of workplace romance has become increasingly difficult with staff working longer hours and social media often blurring the lines between the professional and personal lives of employees.
This issue was splashed across the press recently when League Two’s Burton Albion Football Club found itself at the heart of sex discrimination, constructive dismissal and harassment claims brought by former Administrator Kerry Miller. Ms Miller, 46, asserted that during her employment at the Pirelli Stadium she was warned to stay away from the footballers “without reason” and, when robustly reminded of this instruction by the Club Chairman, had been “forced” to leave her employment.
However, during the proceedings it emerged that she had in fact burst into the players’ dressing rooms on many occasions just when they happened to be getting changed, had sent topless photos of herself to a striker half her age and had engaged in a “casual” relationship with a defender.
The Leicester Employment Tribunal reasoned that Miller had been the author of her own misfortune. She had overreacted in walking out when reprimanded for her behaviour by the Chairman. After all, said the Tribunal in terms not quite veiled enough to be entirely courteous, she was “no shrinking violet” and had not really been intimidated by the Chairman’s anger that she would not do as she was told. In addition, soon after she left Ms Miller floated the idea of a return to work at the Club, a step almost invariably fatal to a claim that the employer is guilty of a serious breach of contract.
Her claims of sex discrimination and harassment were dismissed on the basis that a male employee would have been treated in the same manner had he persistently flouted orders in the same way. You could only imagine the response had one of the groundsmen continually wandered into the Ladies team’s quarters during the post-match showers! The fact remained that Ms Miller had entered the male changing rooms routinely without good reason, and had uploaded photos of herself with a player onto Facebook, thus catalysing personal rumours about them of a not wholly flattering nature. The Judge emphasised that the Club’s decision to discipline her was rooted in the fact that her continued attempts to fraternise with players was detrimental to its future and to team spirit, especially on the basis she was engaging in a relationship with one player and yet still seeking to maximise her exposure to the others.
This case highlights the difficult position facing employers when employees begin to engage in such activities during working hours. Although serial shower-room invasions aren’t a common problem, the fall-out of employees’ actual or attempted flings can be. There are steps employers can take to make to minimise employee heartache (actually no, not really) and company reputational damage further down the line. Employee handbooks should clearly state if there is a company stance on close personal relationships between employees and whether line managers should be notified of such associations.
Any policy or guidelines should detail how the company expects its employees to conduct themselves at work, and also be effectively communicated to staff. Burton Albion received in extra time a bit of a yellow card from the Judge on the grounds that Miller had not received written terms of employment. With respect, that seems a little offside as criticisms go, since the likelihood of their containing a clause relating to the ethics and possible disciplinary consequences of bursting repeatedly and unnecessarily into the gents’ dressing room after being told not to must surely be seen as pretty limited.