The perils of workplace romances

February is seen as the month of love, with Valentine’s Day ensuring everyone’s mind is focused on the romantic side of life. Workplace romances, however, may not be all hearts and flowers; here we look at the downsides to office romances.

Sexual harassment

Romance may be relatively un-risky where both parties are equally interested, however, sexual harassment can occur when one party feels they are being subjected to unwanted conduct. This conduct can include verbal remarks of a sexual nature, written words in an email or Valentine’s Day card, or physical acts.

Sexual harassment can even occur where the intentions of the employee are well-meaning so long as the recipient of the behaviour, or a person overhearing or witnessing the behaviour, reasonably feels that this has created a humiliating, offensive or intimidating environment. For example, a tribunal has previously found sexual harassment occurred when colleagues played matchmaker and tried persuading an employee to date another person in the office.

The risk to confidentiality

People in relationships will often spend time discussing their working day once outside the office. Where these individuals work in the business, it is likely these discussions will easily turn from general matters to talking about confidential information. This will result in employees breaching their express, and implied, terms of confidentiality.

Additionally, where one of the employees leaves their employment and starts working for a competitor or sets up their own business in competition, there is a risk that they could be receiving confidential trade information from their partner. Employers will find this hard to prove and take action against, unless they are able to find real evidence during an investigation.

Increased unhappiness from other members of staff

Romantic relationships can have an adverse effect on other employees within the business. Employers may experience an increase in complaints, or formal grievances, concerning allegations of favouritism or bias due to the personal relationship the employees are in.

Instances of gossip and ‘banter’ are also likely to increase. This can have a negative effect on team members’ morale and engagement leading to lower productivity from staff.

When relationships go bad

Having a personal relationship at work can lead to positive effects, such as increased morale and engagement as employees are in a positive place in their personal life. However, when relationships go bad, this can lead to a toxic atmosphere within the business. Personal arguments, and potential break-ups, will negatively affect factors such as team work and productivity. It can also lead to higher absence levels due to the emotional strain of working in the same location, especially where the two individuals work closely together or are in the same team.

So can you ban office romances?

Having a total ban on relationships within the office is likely to breach your employees’ rights to privacy. In addition, a complete prohibition is unlikely to be successful due to the close proximity of employees and it may lead to relationships being carried out in secret.

Instead, you can introduce a workplace policy on personal relationships which sets out the rules and obligations for those in the throes of an office romance. This can include a requirement for those in close personal relationships to inform their line managers, and rules around confidentiality, discrimination and the right to move employees in to different teams where the relationship creates a risk to management decisions.

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