The risks of office romance

Acrimonious break-ups between employees not only damage team morale and productivity, but can prove costly as well, according to Hannah Ford, a laywer in the employment team at Guildford-based firm Stevens & Bolton. There are increasing legal risks associated with the fall-out of office romances, Ford tells GrowthBusiness.

‘These issues only tend to surface when the relationship breaks down,’ she says. ‘The employer can then find themselves at a tribunal, with employees arguing that they have suffered discrimination, harrassment or unfair treatment because of their indiscretion.’

Under UK law, employers can be held vicariously liable for the misconduct of their employees – including harrassment – unless they can show they took steps to prevent it. Another possible claim arises if an employee is separated from a loved one and suffers loss of status or remuneration as a result.

In the US, such risks have led to companies introducing “love contracts”, which employees conducting a relationship are encouraged to sign. Ford explains: ‘The terms of a love contract may include a promise that the employee will not pursue a claim against the employer, that the relationship is fully consensual and they will not allege harrassment.’

However, love contracts have been slower to catch on in the UK, where it is more common to deal with such issues within a company’s equal opportunities and harrassment policies. Dating policies are also gaining ground, especially in the public sector, says Ford.

‘Dating policies may ask employees to refrain from sexual banter or flirting in the workplace,’ she explains. ‘They also set limits on “broom cupboard time” and may include an obligation to notify your line manager if you enter into a relationship with a colleague.’

Of course, such policies are non-enforceable, but they can provide useful protection in the event of a tribunal case, Ford concludes.

Romance is dead (at work)

It’s a sad day for love as cautious employers want Valentine’s cards banned from the workplace for fear that sexual harassment claims could ensue, while most owners of growing firms believe budding office romances could harm their business.

In this litigious day and age, business owners are concerned that explicit material could be sent, causing offence, or unwanted attention could lead to tension in the workplace.

’The problem with Valentine’s Cards is that there is a tremendous risk for them to be misinterpreted,’ warns Peter Mooney of Employment Law Advisory Services (ELAS).

’Like any comment of a romantic or sexual nature, the potential for them to backfire is tremendous – landing employers at an employment tribunal fighting a serious case of harassment or sexual discrimination.’

ELAS surveyed 600 small and medium-sized businesses on their attitudes towards office romance ahead of Valentine’s Day and found a third want Valentine’s Cards banned from the workplace altogether. Meanwhile, an overwhelming 91.5 per cent of business owners claim that relationships are bad news for long-term office harmony.

“All it takes is for one person to take offence and any employer could find themselves being accused of sexual discrimination simply for allowing the cards to be sent,’ continues Mooney. ‘To be absolutely safe, any form of Valentine’s message – be it a card or a sexy text message, be it sincere or a practical joke – should be punishable by disciplinary action.’

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