With almost half of UK workers saying they had dated a colleague, and nearly 30% of those relationships resulting in marriage, it isn’t surprising that policies on office relationships are becoming a regular inclusion in contracts of employment.
Longer working hours and an increase in the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture may be one of the reasons why inter-office relationships are becoming more prevalent and consequently becoming an issue that HR departments are having to deal with.
Whilst, on the surface, employers may think that workplace relationships are none of their business and something in which they don’t want or need to become involved, there are some good reasons why some rules need to be created.
Relationships between colleagues of different managerial levels can create perceptions of favouritism, particularly if one is a direct report to the other. A more general concern is that of distraction from work leading to dips in performance and attention which could cause careless mistakes. The repercussions when relationships turn sour can also be damaging.
Equally, whilst a relationship between two senior managers may appear to be allowable because they are in the same job band and position. However, if they do break up, this close working relationship may lead to more potential problems than two workers in differing positions; not only the tense, uncomfortable atmosphere which many break-ups produce but also the issue that these employees were recruited as managers for a reason and if one of them leaves because of the fall-out then this creates a gap within the organisation that could be difficult to fill.
In an attempt to avoid the problem altogether, some employers impose a complete ban on relationships with colleagues. This is not unlawful but can be difficult to enforce in practical terms and could, in extreme circumstances, be seen as an infringement of an employee’s human rights. Even with the best of intentions, human nature is bound to take over at some point leaving employees with a difficult decision to make between a potential romance and their job which they may have worked extremely hard to get and keep. If this is the employer’s preferred option, however, a carefully worded clause should be included in the contract of employment and kept under constant review.
A more flexible way to deal with the issue would be the implementation of rules regarding disclosure of workplace relationships so that they can be managed appropriately. Employees can be told that, if they begin a workplace relationship, this must be communicated to the HR department, for example. Again, this can be tricky because it would require some form of indication of how the employer defined a “relationship” to assist employees to know the point at which disclosure was required. The sometimes transient nature of romantic encounters between colleagues means that this definition would need some serious thought.
This kind of flexible policy could still include a ban on certain types of relationship e.g. those between a manager and direct report but would not be so strict on ‘equal level’ relationships. Its main aim is that nothing that could cause damage to an individual’s or the company’s performance, integrity or reputation with regard to workplace relationships is done in secret. Companies are relying on the professionalism of their employees to be mature about the interplay between work and private life and come clean themselves before the rumour mill does it for them.
From a more legal perspective, any action employers take against employees who breach company rules relating to office relationships should be executed carefully and in line its policies. Decisions on disciplinary or dismissal action should not be based on any discriminatory factor e.g. gender or sexual orientation, for example, otherwise employees will be entitled to make a discrimination claim at employment tribunal, financial compensation for which is unlimited.
By Alan Price, Employment Law Director, Peninsula Business