Lust & Litigation – What’s your policy on office relationships?
The news has been awash in recent weeks reporting on a high-profile romantic relationship in public office, albeit extra-marital, between two work colleagues.
Regardless of your own personal opinion and/or political stance regarding the situation, it also brings the issue of relationships within the workplace firmly into the spotlight.
In the UK, there are no specific laws prohibiting or regulating relationships between employees in work, and an attempt to restrict such relationships would likely be considered a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998.
In contrast, in the USA, employees are commonly asked by their employer to enter into a “love contract”, which is a legal contract that limits the liability of a business in situations where their employees are romantically involved.
Given the amount of time individuals spend in the workplace, (although not so much in the last 18 months as a result of the pandemic and many working from home!) it comes as no surprise that employees regularly enter into relationships with fellow colleagues.
However, there are many risks involved with office romance. These can range from confidentiality issues and claims of preferential treatment, to conflicts of interest within the business.
In addition to these risks, businesses must also be conscious of situations where relationships between employees break down and the potential fallout that follows, as well as circumstances where an employee claims that another colleague has made unwanted advances towards them and is harassing them.
We also know from the #MeToo movement that continues to pick up momentum that there is an increasing awareness of abuses of power in the pursuit of intimate relationships at work. All of the above could, in turn, result in legal claims being brought against the business.
As a result, it is strongly recommended that for businesses to protect themselves from these circumstances, they should make sure that they have robust policies in place, and that employees are fully aware of these policies and their importance. Some businesses even carry out refresher courses for their staff to remind them of this, and this can also act as an effective paper trail for employers to evidence that they have trained employees on their internal policies.
Businesses are also increasingly implementing a “Relationships at Work Policy”. Such a policy can set out the expected standards of behaviour between employees that become romantically involved, and the potential disciplinary action that can result if the standards of behaviour are not followed, as well as requiring that any relationships are immediately disclosed to a senior manager. Upon making such a disclosure, the business can then consider a number of factors, including whether they need to make any changes to the reporting lines of those employees involved or whether the relationship poses a conflict of interest.
Ultimately, employers need to protect their employees from harm and, in doing so, also minimise their own legal risk, but employers also cannot ignore the harsh reality – it is inevitable that romantic relationships will develop between fellow employees within the workplace.