February 13

Valentine’s Day . . . dealing with office romances.

Valentine’s Day is around the corner and the subject of office romances may be on the mind of many employers. The increasing tendency to spend long hours in the office and to meet partners later in life, means that office romances are on the cards for many. According to various surveys more than 50% of UK employees have at some point dated somebody they work with.

Legal issues to be aware of:
Sex discrimination – if two employees are having a relationship and for that reason the more junior female employee is asked to move teams or, if two employees stop having a relationship and the more senior male employee subjects the more junior female partner to detriment (ie not promoting her), as a result.
Sexual harassment claims – if feelings are not reciprocated by one person, or a relationship breaks up and one party is still attempting to win their former partner back. These claims can relate to the harassment itself, such as any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature or unwelcome sexual advances or sending e-mails or other messages with material of a sexual nature.
Victimisation – if an employee reports an unwanted sexual advance to the employer and is then subjected to a detriment, for example dismissal or not receiving a pay rise or bonus.

Non-legal issues to be aware of:
Conflicts – relationships at work can give rise to conflicts of interest – for example, an employee and their line manager are in a relationship and the conflicts which could arise could include matters such as appraisal scoring, remuneration, work allocation, and promotion.
Confidential information – companies may be concerned that employees in a relationship with one another are sharing information which may not be appropriate, such as management plans for the workforce, or in relation to businesses where employees have access to inside information.

How the employer can protect itself:
Update your discrimination and harassment policies and provide training to employees – make sure that you have properly informed employees about the type of behaviour which is considered inappropriate.
Consider imposing an obligation to report relationships to the employer – so that the employer can consider potential conflicts and potentially transfer one of the parties, if necessary.
Consider banning relationships with co-workers – there is some risk that employees could claim that this sort of ban is contrary to their right to privacy and family life; a less extreme alternative might be to urge employees to exercise discretion in particular where there is a professional conflict of interest.
Consider possible discrimination issues when a relationship is reported – it is important to deal sensitively with relationships – for example although the natural conclusion may seem to be to move the more junior employee, this may constitute sex discrimination and so it is important to be alive to the issues and to seek legal advice if you are in doubt.