The perils of the workplace romance

Thanks to Valentine’s Day, February is often be seen as the month of love. Workplace romances, however, may not be all hearts and flowers. Indeed, while it can be expected that colleagues will grow closer at work, especially in these difficult times, employers must always be aware of the issues that can arise as a result. This is especially important if many employees are currently working from home, as it can be much more difficult to observe concerning behaviours and actions between staff. We take a look at some of the downsides to office romances.

Sexual harassment

With the effects of the #MeToo movement still being felt across workplaces, internal management focus has turned to preventing and tackling sexual harassment at work.

Workplace romances may be relatively un-risky where both parties are equally interested in a personal relationship, indeed many enduring relationships are often found to have started in the office. On the other hand, sexual harassment can occur when one party feels they are being subjected to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or conduct that is related to their sex, so long as this violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Such conduct can include verbal remarks of a sexual nature, written words in an email or Valentine’s Day card, or physical acts. It is also important to remember that, with many companies managing staff working from home, software such as Microsoft Teams could also be used to send messages that could amount to harassment.

Regardless of the intentions of the individual carrying out the conduct, sexual harassment can occur so long as the person on the receiving end of the behaviour, or anyone overhearing or witnessing this, can reasonably show this conduct created the required environment. For example, a tribunal has previously found sexual harassment occurred when colleagues were innocently playing matchmaker by trying to persuade an employee to date another person in the office. As the employee did not want this conduct to happen, and they felt humiliated as a result, the well-meaning intentions of the colleagues did not impact the finding of sexual harassment.

A confidentiality risk

Once the working day has ended, many employees will go home to their partner and talk about the events of their day. This is a natural part of being in a relationship; but where both parties work in the same business, it is likely that these discussions will easily move from general matters to talk of confidential information. This is even more important when considering individuals who could be working in their living rooms, kitchens or bedrooms. While occurring within the relationship, these discussions will be a breach of an employee’s express, and implied, terms of confidentiality. They may also lead to subsequent difficulties within a business; for example, where details of a grievance are revealed this may cause a further breakdown in relationships between co-workers.

Additionally, where one of the employees leaves their position 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 often find this conduct is hard to prove and prevent, unless they are able to find real evidence during an investigation.

Workplace morale

At the end of the day, employees are humans. No matter how professional an individual appears in the office, all employees have feelings and emotions that can be affected by their fellow colleagues. While some employees will feel positive about their team members being in a happy relationship, there is a significant chance that a romantic relationship will have an adverse effect on workplace morale. Employers may experience an increase in complaints, or formal grievances, concerning allegations of favouritism and bias due to the personal relationship.

Instances of gossip and ”banter” are also likely to increase. While not seeming aggressive on the surface, a surge in employee gossip about colleagues can lead to further issues, such as malicious rumours being spread among staff. Not only will this affect the morale of the individuals concerned, the creation of a toxic workplace environment will have a negative impact on those within the team, leading to lower productivity and engagement from staff.

When relationships go bad

It is, perhaps, less commonly recognised that being in a personal relationship at work can have a positive effect on employees including increasing morale and engagement levels; a happier personal life can lead to a more content and motivated employee at work. This is likely to last only as long as the relationship is going well however, and when a relationship between colleagues goes sour this can lead to a toxic atmosphere within the business.

Personal arguments, and potential break-ups, will negatively affect factors such as teamwork 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. Actions taken at the breakdown of a relationship could also lead to claims of sexual harassment or discrimination, such as where the relationship ending is the reason for terminating employment or scuppering advancement opportunities.

Can employers ban workplace romances?

Following the #MeToo movement, there were calls for employers to prohibit workplace romances; however, having a total ban on relationships within the office is likely to breach employees’ overarching right 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. Where managers are unaware of personal relationships, they will be unable to manage these effectively or take any necessary steps to prevent a negative impact on the workplace.

Rather than introducing a complete ban, employers can use a workplace policy on personal relationships which sets out the rules and obligations for those in the throes of an office romance. Most policies will include a requirement for those in close personal relationships to inform their line managers, while outlining rules around appropriate behaviour, confidentiality and discrimination. Care should be taken when relying on a right to move employees to different teams where the relationship creates a risk to impartial management decisions, as such moves could lead to claims of less favourable treatment due to sex. Therefore, before carrying out such a move, make sure that all alternatives are considered and confirm that the individual being moved is not put at a detriment or placed in a lesser position.