Ask Kate: How should HR handle these workplace Valentine’s disasters?

  • Employee Conduct
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

You know the phrase ‘don’t mix business with pleasure?’ Well, these cautionary tales are a strong reminder to follow this rule.

HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, Kate Palmer, unpacks some real-life workplace Valentine’s stories that will make you question the meaning of love…

1. When Secret Santa turns sour…

There was an office that liked to run a “Secret Santa” exchange on Valentine’s Day.

It was meant to be a bit of fun. But it all went wrong when two feuding colleagues coincidentally drew each other’s names out of the hat.

Employee A was Welsh and employee B was the office manager. Employee B was also in a relationship with another worker in the office. On the day of the gift exchange, employee B gifted employee A an inflatable sheep. In return, employee A bought employee B a sex toy with a note attached to it.

The note alluded to the fact that Employee B had had several relationships in the office and their current partner – who witnessed the whole exchange – was now their only option.

In a flurry of rage, Employee B’s partner attacked the Welsh employee.

How should HR handle it? Kate says…

Secret Santa can be tricky to navigate at the best of times. And on Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love and romance, things get even more complicated…

Were either of the gifts appropriate? Of course not. Should B’s partner have attacked A? Again, no. All three employees have acted poorly here, and HR will need to take all three through some form of disciplinary proceedings to deal with this problem.

In legal terms, this is a prime example of harassment and bullying – and a pretty serious one at that. So, HR shouldn’t wait to investigate this, and should take immediate steps to get to the bottom of it. This investigation should look into what the gifts were and what happened in the attack.

HR should also consider the background of the event, like who authorised and organised the Secret Santa? Did staff receive any guidance for buying suitable gifts? If so, what was it? And are gifts of this type usually given (hopefully not)?

An investigation can lead to a disciplinary, and this disciplinary should end with a formal outcome . What the employer decides to do is up to them, but any decision they make should be fair and consistent with procedure.

And perhaps reconsider a Valentine’s Day Secret Santa next year?

2. The one with the explicit photos…

A manager had to investigate a claim of an employee using the company email to send explicit photos to a colleague. The two employees were in a relationship with each other at the time.

The manager had to look over all the photos and present them as evidence in the investigation. 

How should HR handle it? Kate says…

The employee’s behaviour has put the investigating manager in an incredibly awkward position - one that’s unlikely to be welcome…

However, investigations are important, especially when they might lead to disciplinary action. So, the manager should have support to carry this out.

To have a thorough investigation, HR should ask the following…

  • Is there an email usage policy in place, and what does it say about emails unrelated to work? 
  • Is it common in the office for people to send non-work emails to each other?
  • Who else had access to these emails?
  • Were they taken at work, during working hours?

There may be more questions the manager will need to ask before they can move ahead to the next stage – a disciplinary.

3. A married security guard having an affair with a student…

Employee A is a student halls security officer.

One day, employee A’s partner comes in to work with a powerpoint presentation and a pair of underwear. The partner claims the underwear belongs to a student and accuses employee A of having an affair.

The partner presents the powerpoint to employee A’s boss. They claim that employee A created the powerpoint, which shows a detailed overview of the student in question.

Employee A denies everything. They say their partner has made it to get them into trouble. Only, the powerpoint contains lots of personal information the partner couldn’t possibly know. They also discover employee A drew a comic for the student.

And there is evidence that employee A took the student to restricted areas of the campus and had been in the student’s bedroom.

Employee A is currently going through a disciplinary process.

How should HR handle it? Kate says…

On the face of it, A has acted inappropriately and HR should look into a possible data security breach. This depends on how A first discovered the information in order to create the powerpoint.

Has A, or somehow A’s partner, unlawfully accessed sensitive information about a student? Is there a risk of non-compliance with GDPR rules for the business? It will take some digging to get to the bottom of this one and could result in the need to report a data breach to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

With regards to A’s relationship with the student, and access to restricted areas, HR will need to look at their own policies and how they train employees to check if this is something prohibited.

 It may not necessarily be obvious that relations with students are not allowed, so HR will need to show when and how this was made clear to A. The same goes for accompanying students into restricted areas. Is it in a particular policy, and has A read this? Did this form part of initial training for A? Ideally, a paper trail would emerge of HR telling A about this or written evidence in a policy.

Without this evidence, it could prove difficult to discipline the employee. But starting by asking A if he thought it was OK would be a good start.

Don’t let a personal relationship destroy a working one…

A policy can prevent inappropriate relationships from distracting and disrupting your workforce. So, click here to download a free sample today.

Did you enjoy this blog? Then make sure to check out your guide to drama-free workplace relationships.

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