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Stupid cupid

Tips for mitigating the potential fallout from office romances.

Many of your thoughts will no doubt have turned to all things mushy and romantic for St Valentine’s Day earlier this month.  Fear not, the FSP employment team are here to kill the mood by highlighting the potential fallout that businesses may face as a result of their employees’ romantic entanglements (and how to mitigate those risks).

It’s certainly no surprise, given the large proportion of waking hours we all spend at work, that office romances have become commonplace.  According to a 2015 survey by Approved Index, as many as 65% of office workers have been involved in at least one office romance.  Many successful couples work together brilliantly to the benefit of their employers but there is no doubt that tricky issues can arise, especially when relationships end.

In reality there is little employers can do to avoid office romances developing. Any attempt at an outright ban is likely to contravene the Human Rights Act, specifically the right to respect for private and family life, as well as making the situation impossible to manage. Prohibition won’t stop co-workers forming relationships; employers just won’t find out about it until something goes wrong or the rumour mill is in full swing.  Employers would be better advised to implement sensible policies that outline what is considered appropriate behaviour in the workplace (no kissing in the canteen?) and place a requirement upon individuals entering into a relationship to disclose this to management so that risks can be properly managed.

Robust equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies and training are the best way of mitigating the risk of sexual discrimination and harassment claims, which might arise if a relationship turns sour or feelings are no longer reciprocated (if indeed they ever were).  Failure to comply with these policies can be dealt with as disciplinary issues in the normal way. Some UK companies have adopted the US-style approach of requiring employees in relationships to sign “love contracts” confirming that the relationship is consensual. Such contracts may help guard against an abuse of power or unwanted attention masquerading as romance but in reality offer employers limited assistance in circumstances where things turn nasty after a love affair has ended.

It is not uncommon for employers to be faced with tough decisions about moving one party to another part of the business or even dismissing him or her if a relationship ends badly, particularly if that relationship was between a very senior individual and a junior report and/or amounted to an extra marital affair.  It goes without saying that this scenario very often gives rise to claims for unfair dismissal and/or sex discrimination. Employers faced with this type of situation should seek urgent legal advice, particularly in circumstances where a commercial decision needs to be taken.

Even successful romantic relationships between a manager and his or her direct report will need to be carefully managed to avoid allegations of favouritism and to avoid potential conflicts of interest.  Employers may want to consider whether individuals should work separately from the outset to minimise the risk of this type of issue. Employers should also be alive to the risk of “pillow talk” compromising confidential information; where appropriate, employees can be reminded of these allegations and the situation monitored if there are specific concerns.

As well as ensuring the key processes and procedures are in place, ultimately employers are best placed to handle any tricky issues that arise when they work hard to foster an open and supportive working environment so that employees feel able to share personal information and concerns.