Can employees form romantic relationships at work? Well, that very much depends on the business.
The recent departure of Philip Schofield from ITV (after a workplace relationship with a younger colleague) has highlighted the reputational damage that can occur when relationships at work are kept secret and then discovered. As a business owner it is worth giving some thought to how you will handle any workplace relationships in advance.
It can seem like an attractive idea to simply ban relationships at work, or at least relationships between employees and their subordinates. However, a ban can be a tricky one as lots of relationships have traditionally been formed after a workplace meeting. An outright ban can seem harsh to employees and can also be hard to police and may simply force relationships underground. In this blog we explore the options you have as a business owner and the steps you can take to protect your business and employees.
The problem with workplace romances
Relationships between employees can cause managers and business owners a lot of stress, as there’s no way of knowing what effect they will have on the organisation, especially if it’s a small business where everyone knows each other.
The biggest concerns for employers are usually a dip in performance or productivity for the couple involved or an awkward office atmosphere. There are even potential sexual harassment claims if the relationship were to turn sour or if there was any suggestion that it was an abuse of power or any vulnerabilities from the outset.
It is also worth thinking about the impact of other personal relationships (such as siblings, in laws, parent/child) and seeking disclosure so that you can put any necessary safeguards in place.
What does the law say about workplace relationships?
There’s no UK law that says relationships between employees are illegal, but employers have the right to prohibit workplace romances if they think it could negatively impact the business.
It’s important to tread carefully on this topic as dismissing an employee for starting a workplace relationship could result in an unfair dismissal claim. In addition, if you choose to dismiss one half of the couple and not the other, or dismiss a homosexual couple but not a heterosexual couple, you’ll likely be accused of discrimination.
It’s best practice to seek professional advice before starting a disciplinary process, but a clear and comprehensive policy about workplace relationships will also help to communicate your stance on the subject and reduce confusion.
Create a workplace relationships policy
There have been a few high profile organisations such as McDonalds that have had work strict workplace bans on romantic relationships between those with a direct or indirect reporting relationship.
However, choosing to ban employee relationships outright tends to be a risky move. It’s understandable for people to grow closer when they spend the majority of their time at work, and prohibiting workplace relationships is likely to just encourage staff to keep them a secret.
A better option is to create a policy that promotes an open and honest business environment, while also ensuring that behaviour stays professional in the workplace.
Some good clauses to include might be:
- Employees should inform their line manager of any relationship which may affect their work in some way
- Professional conduct should always be displayed, both at work and at work-related events
- No preferential or unfavourable treatment should be shown to any employee as a result of a workplace relationship
- Action will be taken in the event of any member of staff making a complaint against another
- In the case of an employee being in a relationship with a subordinate and detailed plan should be undertaken to put in place appropriate safeguards to ensure transparency and fairness.
- It is also worth asking any self-employed consultants you use to read and comply with your policy and disclose any relationships.
Another point to remember is that your business should have a clear policy on sexual harassment which is easily accessible for all staff. This will make the company’s stance clear on what will not be seen as appropriate behaviour.
The main thing to remember when creating a policy on workplace relationships is that all employees are entitled to private lives, even within the work environment. Making judgements and being disrespectful will only create an uncomfortable company culture and could leave you open to a tribunal claim.
Get HR Support
If you need help with managing a workplace romance or advice on creating a tailored relationships policy for your business, our HR consultants can help.
Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call on 0333 444 0165 to find out more about how we can help your business with friendly, expert HR support.
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