Last reviewed 5 February 2020

Romantic relationships between co-workers is not uncommon, with 65% of office workers admitting to having been involved in a workplace relationship according to a study by Approved Index. Addressing office relationships can be difficult as employees are likely to be protective over something they consider to be a personal matter. However, leaving this unchecked could create an uncomfortable situation in the workplace which means employers must approach this in a tactful manner.

Relationships can cause issues within the workplace, and employers may understandably want to put a policy in place regarding workplace relationships to guard against potential issues. However, they should avoid the temptation to place an outright ban on office relationships, as a complete ban is likely to be ineffective and may prove counterproductive, by encouraging staff to circumvent rules and conduct relationships in secret.

Instead, employers may wish to introduce a workplace policy on personal relationships to lay down some important ground rules. These often include a reminder for staff to act in a professional manner with one another while at work, as well as a requirement to disclose any relationship to a senior manager or designated HR professional.

Should employers act on romantic relationships?

Employers are advised to have an informal discussion with the individuals involved which will give them an opportunity to explain their concerns and uncover the truth of the relationship. It is essential that employers remain discreet and are wary of the employees’ right to privacy.

Employers should assess the impact of the relationship before deciding on taking any action. While employers must not treat these employees any less favourably for being romantically involved, they should consider how this relationship could impact the workplace dynamics, perhaps choosing to separate both individuals if they work within the same team.

This will be particularly important if the relationship is between a manager and a subordinate, as allowing them to work directly with each other could create tension among the wider workforce and even lead to claims of favouritism. If there are no alternative positions available to facilitate a job move, then employers should ensure that at the very least operational matters, such as requests for annual leave and decisions on bonuses, are processed by a different manager to ensure impartiality.

Although it may cause a degree of consternation to employers, taking a considered approach to workplace relationships will help to maintain a professional working environment. Ultimately any action taken by employers should be reasonable and backed up by a legitimate business aim, as exaggerating in this situation could alienate the individuals involved.

Should employers act on relationship break ups?

With romantic relationships so common, there will always be a risk that a difficult break up could occur. Dealing with a break up within the workplace can be tricky and employers are advised to approach the matter with care and consideration. Discussions should focus on how matters can move forward and how the personal situation can move on from becoming a problem in the workplace to finding an amicable solution.

Employers can remind employees that they have a duty to the rest of the workforce to ensure a positive and productive working environment. Employers can offer alternative working arrangements which may help to alleviate the situation — these may include an individual moving into a different team, or amending existing work schedules.

When discussing potential solutions, employers must avoid taking sides or appearing to favour one individual over another, as this could lead to claims of discrimination under certain circumstances. It is also important to avoid a situation where one individual feels they need to resign after being placed in an uncomfortable position, as this could lead to claims of constructive unfair dismissal.

Comment by Peninsula Associate Director Kate Palmer

It is almost inevitable, with the number of hours that people spend at work and the growing social opportunities on offer, that romantic relationships may develop between colleagues. This can blur the lines on professionalism at work, some employers may be concerned about the effect that these relationships can have on the workplace in light of the #MeToo movement.

Legally, there are no laws preventing office romances and it is usually left to employers to determine how they are going to respond to them. It may be tempting for employers to implement a complete office ban on romances, or “love contract”, but this rule can be very unpopular among the workforce, highly difficult to enforce and potentially breach the human rights of the employees.

It is therefore advisable for an employer to outline within their company policies what is considered appropriate behaviour in the workplace and place a requirement upon any individuals entering into a relationship to disclose this to their manager. From there, employers can decide if the individuals should work separately in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest within ongoing projects or general working duties. This can also help to avoid accusations of preferential treatment from other members of staff if the relationship involves a manager and someone on their team.

Employers may also be concerned about what the implications could be if the relationship turns sour, which could expose the company to increased liability, such as accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination. It is highly advisable that clear policies are maintained that outline a zero-tolerance policy to this kind of treatment within the workplace and that both parties to the relationship are reminded of this fact when they disclose it. If either individual is found to be in breach of this, employers should process the situation through their usual disciplinary and misconduct procedures.

This will also ensure that employees will feel able to come forward if the relationship does end and the conduct of the other individual is causing them to feel uncomfortable at work, meaning that employers will be able to take action against that person before the situation escalates.