Managing Office Relationships

09 Feb

A survey of 7,700 workers from dating website illicit (People Management, 2012) found that: “Nearly 40% of staff admitted to having a relationship with a colleague at some point in their career. 38% of survey respondents said they had dated a colleague and 17% admitted they had done it more than twice”.

Many companies would like to follow the US and issue a blanket ban on office romances by including a ‘no romance clause’ in the employment contract. However this is unlikely to stand ground in the UK and may actually breach the right to privacy under Human Rights Act 1988.

A well-written, widely publicised policy on office romance won’t prevent office romances from developing but it can make life easier and less litigious when you have to deal with it.

Policy and Procedure
The policy should be positive and accept workplace romances but it should have clear and fair guidelines on office romances. It should be well publicised so it's known to all employees, and should be followed every time.

In the policy, the company should determine what it considers to be unacceptable behaviour or misconduct in the office. For example:

·         inappropriate physical contact

·         inappropriate use of language

·         personal use of company communications systems

The company should identify any risks such as confidentiality breaches, conflict of interest or supervisory issues before implementing a policy and procedure.

The policy could prevent those in a relationship who work closely together from interviewing, managing or promoting each other. This could be incorporated into relevant existing policies, such as those recognising equal opportunities or dignity at work.

The policy should be thought of as guidance or a code of conduct so that any breach would be a misconduct issue rather than a breach of contract.

Equal opportunities policies should make it explicit that everyone will be treated fairly and on merit, so that claims on favouritism and victimisation can be limited during a romantic relationship.

The specifics of your policy will depend on your company culture and industry, the local laws and good management decisions of what needs to be accomplished.

Make clear the company policy on harassment and provide sexual harassment training for managers or all employees if possible.

Relationships between managers and their subordinates
Generally, it is not a good idea for a manager and subordinate to be involved romantically. Employees should be advised and informed on why situations like this are inappropriate. This should be further reinforced in the company policy.

Companies may want to include a clause in senior employees’ employment contracts prohibiting them from having a relationship with subordinate employees within their own teams, departments or locations.

If a relationship does develop between a manager and subordinate, the company should get involved and manage the situation through effective communication. However, it should not automatically assume it is wrong and try to stop it.

Performance and Conduct
If a workplace romance is causing distraction or affecting employee’s performance, the employer should be involved and a proper procedure should be followed to deal with performance issues.

If two employees are involved in the same inappropriate conduct then ensure a proper disciplinary procedure is followed and that they are treated the same, as inconsistent treatment could lead to discriminations claims.

If there is sexual banter and gossip about two employees involved in a relationship, the employer should look into it to avoid sexual harassment claims.

Break Ups
A broken heart can cause emotional stress for some people, so if you have an Employee Assistance program make sure your employees know about it.

When co-workers in a relationship fall out managers should step in quickly and try to avoid conflicts. Employees should be reminded of the need to be professional in the office. It may even be necessary to move the employees apart for a cooling-off period. But be careful and look at each situation on its merit. Do not automatically assume that the senior person or the male or female is correct or is more valuable.

It is important if a relationship breaks down and the company decides to transfer an employee it has to have an objective reason for choosing to move one employee and not the other. It also has to be careful when considering which employee to transfer as if it simply chooses the junior or female employee this could result in a claim for sex or age discrimination.