Last reviewed 28 January 2022

Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate romance and relationships; however it might not be all hearts and flowers for employers and HR teams. Celebrating the occasion can lead to an increase in claims of sexual harassment at work, especially due to the increasing awareness and understanding within this area.

Sexual harassment can take place where there is unwanted conduct relating to sex, or of a sexual nature, which causes the recipient or any person witnessing the conduct to feel that their dignity has been violated or it has created an intimidating, humiliating, hostile or degrading environment.

There is a risk that traditional Valentine’s Day gestures can lead to incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace where these are unwanted by employees. Take the Valentine’s Day card for example: although the employee giving the card may view the card’s message as nice, funny or romantic, the words written in a card can be viewed as unwanted conduct which goes on to create the hostile environment amounting to sexual harassment. There has been a recent example of this where an employment tribunal found a factory worker was sexually harassed by her manager after a crude comment in her birthday card led her to feeling humiliated.

However it’s not just cards. Valentine’s Day emails, instant messages, presents or physical gestures can all increase the risk of sexual harassment taking place. Even where the intentions of the employees are good, it is the perception of the person claiming sexual harassment that will be looked at. A tribunal has even found that an employee was subjected to sexual harassment when colleagues repeatedly tried to set them up with another member of staff, even though the action was intended to be good-natured and not purposefully with malice or offense.

To ensure sexual harassment is not occurring in the workplace, on Valentine’s Day or at any other time, employers can take positive steps to increase awareness and deter staff. One of the most effective deterrents is to have a clear, well-drafted sexual harassment policy which outlines the rules on acceptable and unacceptable conduct within the workplace. The policy can also state how to make complaints once harassment has occurred and it should also give an indication of the consequences of sexually harassing colleagues. Training should be provided to all members of staff and it will be useful to include real life examples of what can be seen as sexual harassment.

In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, and on the day itself, a gentle reminder to employees about what is acceptable in the workplace can be an effective way of reducing the risk of sexual harassment taking place. Employees can also be told to exchange Valentine’s Day cards and gifts outside the workplace during personal time and managers should lead by example in this area.

This being said, employers can arrange activities to encourage “Galentine’s Day” or other similar initiatives. This allows for an alternative celebration to Valentine’s Day, whereby employees appreciate the friendships they have developed as colleagues. Galentine’s removes the romantic element of the event, which in turn reduces the risk of any associated behaviour of harassment. Employees should still be reminded to be respectful and considerate with clear boundaries as to the acceptable and unacceptable actions, even if they were initiated on a friendship level.

The nature of the day may mean staff become distracted, so are using their mobile phones and personal devices more than usual. This may be to chat with their friends or significant others, or to check and post on social media. Gossiping is also commonplace on and around Valentine’s Day. As a result, performance may be negatively impacted, leading to missed targets and lower output. Managers should be proactive to monitor teams and remind them of rules surrounding the use of phones in the workplace to ensure they perform to normal levels. However, having a defined time during the day to celebrate — this may be through the provision of a mid-morning snack or afternoon treat — can keep employees focused and motivated whilst still feeling appreciated by their employer. Allowing flexibility with requests for annual leave and early finishes can further improve morale and contribute towards a positive company culture with low turnover rates.