Just after the end of the month of love, employers may feel the need to take some time to consider their approach to relationships within the workplace. Perhaps due to increased working hours, a higher number of work social events or even the 2012’s record breaking book sales of Fifty Shades of Grey – office romances are on the up! Although essentially unpreventable, employers are advised to consider the following points in order to prevent relations between staff from causing them difficulties.

The subject of such romances remains predominantly private, and employers are therefore reminded of the employee’s right to privacy under the Human Rights Act 1998. That being said, there are circumstances where the employer can be seen to have legitimate grounds to intervene. This could be when the conduct of the parties can be seen to be detrimental to the business, a situation which most commonly occurs following the breakdown of such a relationship.

The breakdown of a relationship can give rise to various issues for an employer including:

  • Where, due to a difficult breakup, the parties are unable to work amicably together;
  • Claims of sexual harassment.

The Equality Act 2010 identifies what behaviour can result in a claim for sexual harassment. Either party may claim that this occurred prior to the relationship forming or subsequent to the breakup. Actions which can give rise to a sexual harassment claim include: sending of offensive emails; jokes or remarks of a sexual nature or inappropriate touching. In order for an employer to remain protected against such a claim it is pivotal that they can demonstrate all reasonable steps were taken to prevent such harassment from occurring.

An employer may conclude that the best course of action, in terms of either of the above, is to remove one party from the environment and offer a similar role in an alternative department. Employers should be cautious when implementing this solution that they are not left susceptible to additional claims from the relocated party notably sex discrimination. When deciding on which party to remove, employers must be mindful that basing their decision on the who holds the most junior role, which statistics have shown is most likely to be the female party, may result in an action of discrimination.

In order to avoid such claims, an employer may want to consider implementing a workplace relationship policy. Under this policy, the employer can stipulate the process following the breakdown of workforce relationship to such a degree that parties are unable to work together. For example such a policy may regulate which criteria will determine what party will be relocated within the business. Alternatively the employer may wish to enforce a “love contract” to protect themselves from claims such as sexual harassment – a concept widely used in the USA.

For any further clarification, please call our 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.

by Nicola Mullineux