February 2, 2017

Workplace romance: What’s love (and the law) got to do with it?

As Valentine’s Day 2017 recedes into the distance for another year and the greetings card industry pauses to count its takings, should you be concerned about workplace romances affecting your staff?

Maybe you’ve been following the gripping BBC drama Apple Tree Yard, a retelling of the bestseller by Louise Doughty?

On her way to a work ‘do’, high-flying career scientist Yvonne indulges in consensual, passionate sex with mysterious business contact Mark.

Arriving at the event she is glowing, but by the end of the night her joy has turned to devastation after she is violently raped by her drunken long-term colleague, George.

Events in the story develop quickly from there, with the plot providing a serious and considered take on the challenging issue of workplace relationships.

Challenging unwanted physical contact

Consensual workplace relationships are commonplace but still potentially problematic, and there may be adverse publicity for your organisation depending on the seniority of those involved.

But unwanted sexual advances in the workplace are unfortunately still all too common. And they often go unreported, with employees afraid to risk their livelihoods or career opportunities, even though most employers make it perfectly clear they regard this as gross misconduct.

52% of women interviewed in a recent TUC survey said they had been sexually harassed at work, and most said they had not reported it.

Staff should not misread a friendly smile or a cheery comment as an invitation to indulge unwanted physical contact, but many clearly still do. Sometimes there’s a reasonably fine line between what appears to be consensual and what, in reality, is not.

Relationship boundaries for work

A good approach for employers handling workplace relationships is to ‘keep it horizontal’ (so to speak). The risk to your business is directly proportional to the vertical managerial gap between the two participants – so while relationships between staff on the same grade are usually fine, those between senior and junior colleagues can be very damaging.

Ask Bill Clinton.

When his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky became public, the gap between the President of the United States and a White House intern caused a tidal wave of criticism. Was she under pressure? Was she overwhelmed by his status? The damage to the presidential office and long-lasting adverse publicity for “Brand Clinton” were both enormous.

The reality of relationships in the workplace

However, the other side of the coin is that at least one in five people meets a long term partner through work. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that only one worker in twenty apparently feels a ban on office romances is appropriate.

A third of employees confess to at least one workplace relationship, and apparently 25% have even had sex at work or on business.

The problem with many workplace relationships is that they end untidily, leaving colleagues and employers having to clear up the fall out.

Effective management of workplace romances

It’s important that your rules are clear and applied consistently. Moorepay clients will be aware of the importance we attach to robust equalities, bullying and harassment provisions, but many clients also ask us to provide a suitable relationships policy where problems have, or may, manifest themselves.

They may be difficult to ban (although Thomsons travel group has opted to go down this route), but at least with Moorepay’s help you can effectively regulate them.

Your employee handbook is unlikely to be on your employees’ must-read best-sellers list, so it’s important to remind staff regularly about your expectations. However good your written policies, staff need to understand what they mean and where the boundary lines are drawn.

Whether or not a romance is disclosed and however it ends, it’s important that staff understand that workplace behaviour must remain 100% professional – even if the romance ends in heartbreak. Otherwise, the problem won’t necessarily be limited to the two individuals.

The adverse effect on your organisation can be significant and long-lasting. The 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, can attest to that. As, for that matter, can the 45th and current incumbent, Donald J. Trump.

For more assistance or advice on managing workplace relationships and expectations through your employee contracts and policies contact the Moorepay employment law team to discuss your particular concerns or queries – contact the team or call 0845 184 4615.

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About the author

Mike Fitzsimmons

Mike is a Senior HR Consultant within the Moorepay Policy Team. He is responsible for the developing of employment documentation and is an Employment law advisor. With over 30 years of senior management and HR experience, Mike has managed teams of between 30 and 100 employees and is familiar with all the issues that employing people brings. He has also served as a non-executive director on the Boards of several social enterprises and undertook a five year tour of duty as Executive Chair of a £30+ million annual turnover Government agency.