By Val Moore

Introduction

Childcare still tends to be a female-dominated profession and the question of office romances is not one that is often considered.

However, as we come up to the festive season, it is a matter that many other businesses may start to consider as the famous, or infamous, “office” party can be the trigger to starting a new relationship. Christmas is not, of course, the only time that a relationship may start and all employers need to give the matter consideration as to how they respond and maybe develop a suitable policy.

If you are currently an all-female organisation, please keep reading. Male members of staff may be engaged at a future date, there may be male persons in management and romance can blossom between any two people. Such relationships may occur between someone directly employed by the provision and someone “one step removed”, for example a supplier.

Legal risks

These romances need consideration before they happen as they could expose the employer to a number of legal risks. This mainly happens when one employee is pursuing another, or if the relationship breaks down. In these circumstances the employer may be open to claims for the following.

Sexual Harassment is when someone behaves in an unwanted sexual manner towards another. Everyone has a right to be treated with dignity and not to be intimidated or humiliated. This includes inappropriate touching, speech, jokes, e-mails and innuendo.

A Sexual Discrimination claim can arise when a relationship has ended. It is usually the junior person in the relationship who is dismissed or finds themselves with changed shifts, or moved to another department, while the other, senior, person retains their position.

Victimisation can compound a problem where an employee raises a sexual harassment grievance and the employer seeks to move that employee to a new role or department rather than take action against the perpetrator.

It is probably unworkable and possibly unenforceable to ban workplace relationships outright. Such a ban may be seen to be at odds with the Human Rights Act and the individual’s right “to respect for their private and family life”.

When people become involved in a relationship, however, there can be occasions when there could be a conflict of interests, or not putting the interests of the provision as the priority.

Workplace Relationship Policy

While it is probably unreasonable (and in possible conflict with the Human Rights Act and the individual’s right “to respect for their private and family life”) to insist that all such workplace relationships are disclosed, it is preferable for employers to identify particular situations where such a disclosure is required.

This means having a Workplace Relationship Policy, and you may wish to consider some of the following points.

  1. Identifying roles that would require a relationship to be disclosed, ie:

    • where the individuals are not of equal “rank” or status

    • when a person with responsibility for ordering supplies, or paying the bills, has a relationship with a supplier• when a person with responsibility for ordering supplies, or paying the bills, has a relationship with a supplier

    • where a parent or guardian is involved.

  2. Disclosure of a relationship with anyone, inside or outside the provision, which may give rise to a conflict of interest or could be a threat to the business, ie:

    • relationship with a supplier

    • relationship with someone from another provision.

  3. Having a general workplace rule for all employees prohibiting intimate behaviour within the provision. This could include:

    • no touching

    • no intimate jokes

    • no personal e-mails or texts during working hours or using company computers and telephones for personal exchanges.

  4. Having a clause which allows the employer to move the employee(s) involved if a conflict of interest arises from the relationship.

  5. Referring to the provision’s grievance procedure which enables an employee to make a complaint if they are adversely affected by a colleague’s conduct.

Not all negative

Romances can have a very positive affect on us all, whether directly involved or watching from the sidelines.

“The sight of lovers feedeth those in love” (Shakespeare’s As You Like It) and uplifts others. Seeing someone happy puts a smile on our faces.

So, workplace romances can be beneficial by lifting spirits, improving morale and lightening up the day-to-day pressures of the workplace.

Those involved may adopt a more positive attitude towards their work and become easier to work with; they will exchange ideas and listen to others. Being happy themselves they are often more open to mediating between other employees as they want everyone to be as happy as they are.

In a larger organisation where the two individuals are working in different departments it aids communication between those departments. With the two individuals in contact, it helps channels of communication between others of those departments.

When it comes to an end

Not all such romances will result in wedding bells; some will just fizzle out, with the people involved able to remain friends and easygoing work colleagues.

Managing a more acrimonious or one-sided break-up needs sympathy and professionalism. An informal discussion is best, where their manager acknowledges the relationship and its ending. The manager needs to be clear that while they sympathise (the manager has probably had similar experiences), the provision and its children are everyone’s primary concern and it will be expected that they will be professional in their approach to their work and all other people. It must be made clear that they should not bring personal feelings into the workplace and they will be expected to treat each other with, at least, professional respect.

All other employees should, dependent upon their relationship with those individuals, express sympathy once, if appropriate, and then carry on their day-to-day work as if the episode had not taken place. No gossip. No taking sides.

Many happy couples meet through their work — it is after all where we spend much of our time.

There will be some office romances that few, if any, fellow workers ever know about, where those involved prefer to keep it quiet. It has been said that “the best romance is the one that no-one at the company knows about”.

And finally

We are all individuals with our happiness and our sorrows — but everyone deserves a little happiness in their lives.

Let us leave the final word to Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on” (Twelfth Night).

Last reviewed 12 December 2012