What happens when an office romance goes sour?

Posted on
Employers are being given a timely Valentine’s Day warning to make sure they have policies in place to handle office romances.

It is estimated that one in four love affairs start at work, but relationships between colleagues can be a potential minefield for businesses, especially when they break down.

Rebecca Ireland, a partner in Blake Morgan’s Employment team says employers need to be aware of measures they can take to manage personal relationships between employees - and to minimise the potential for tribunal claims if those relationships end.

And she says employers should consider bringing in outside help if the fallout from a failed romance is having an impact on the workplace.

In the USA, businesses have attempted to ban workplace relationships or have used so-called “love contracts” that employees sign to confirm their relationship is consensual. But bans are rarely effective and contracts do little to prevent problems when relationships break down.

Rebecca, who is a qualified workplace mediator, says: "Given the amount of time people spend in the workplace it is no surprise that relationships begin there, but businesses can leave themselves vulnerable if they don't take advice on the best way to handle them.

“Every situation is different, but employers should make sure they have taken the right advice and implemented all the steps they can to minimise problems.”

Problems can arise during a relationship if one of the employees is in a supervisory role to the other, so that decisions on staff appraisals, allocation of overtime, and approval of holiday requests could be perceived as favouritism. “Pillow talk” also poses a potential danger regarding breaches of confidentiality.

Where a romance has ended the problems can be even greater. There may be allegations of unfair treatment or sexual harassment or the situation may be reached where the employees are just unable to work together.

Rebecca adds: “One way to deal with this is to have in place a personal relationship policy requiring employees to inform their employer in confidence of the existence of such a personal relationship, and providing for alternative management structures to be put in place where such a relationship develops.

“Employers can help make it clear to employees where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are by having an up-to-date code of conduct and equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies in place.

“However employers need to take care in implementing such policies as action taken against just one employee in the broken relationship could give rise to claims of sex discrimination.”

Rebecca says that an employer who wants to keep two valuable employees whose relationship has broken down may find that paying for workplace meditation makes financial sense.

Workplace mediation involves a neutral third party identifying the issues of concern and helping the parties to move forward – not always easy when emotions are running high. The focus is on the future rather than past grievances.

Rebecca adds: “With smaller employers, where separating the warring employees is simply not practical and employees are not willing to cooperate with workplace mediation, an employer may be forced to consider dismissing one or both employees. Such a step should of course be a last resort and a fair procedure would need to be followed.

“A decision to dismiss just the most junior of the two employees may leave an employer open to a discrimination claim where the junior employees in a workplace are predominantly female and the senior employees male.

“In many cases just having a third party there to talk through the issues can help everyone to move on and resolve the situation without more drastic measures being taken.”