UK: Office Romances

Last Updated: 13 February 2009
Article by Gemma Robertson

Valentine's Day is approaching again, and there might be more than a few employees waiting to see what the internal mail, as well as the post-man, might bring them.

Romantic relationships in the workplace are perhaps more common than one might think. A study in America has revealed that at least 70% of employees will date someone from work at least once in their career. Many employees meet their future husband, wife or partner at work. For instance, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson met at a law firm in Chicago.

We shouldn't forget, however, that love hurts. Most of us know that, but what we might not know so well is that your hurt may end up being shared by your employer at any time from the first throes of romance to the bitter break up.

Phase 1: Initiating the Relationship

Deciding to initiate a relationship with someone at work is a delicate matter. Asking anyone out on a date is always a nervous moment, but if it is an unwanted advance in the workplace, this could give rise to a sexual harassment claim. This would clearly be in the worst case scenario and would depend upon how the advance is framed. Before flirting too obviously, the employee should be aware that compensation for harassment can be awarded against them personally as well as the employer. So, before asking someone out on a date at work, remember it could cost more than the price of the meal.

Phase 2: Pursuing the Relationship

Even if the date is accepted, and that one date leads to another, when all is going well in a relationship, issues can still arise in the workplace.

When romance is blossoming, the traffic of personal emails may increase. This can obviously be a disruption to the business if the quality or volume of work suffers. Most employers have internet and email use policies which permit only reasonable personal use. Overuse of email facilities is unlikely to be a dismissable offence unless warnings have previously been given. If the content of emails is inappropriate, this could amount to gross misconduct. Therefore, employees should avoid becoming too amorous online!

If you're friends with your colleagues, it isn't uncommon to share with them stories about a new relationship. However, if the employee shares too much information, this may not be viewed as cute by their partner if he or she has to face their colleagues knowing they know personal details. This could really be a problem if they enjoy teasing him or her about those details. This too could give rise to a harassment claim, and if it becomes intolerable, it could also give rise to a constructive unfair dismissal claim.

Greater practical issues will arise if employees who are dating are in the same department and work closely together. The greatest difficulty arises if an employee dates a superior colleague. In most cases, it will be appropriate to redirect line management so that the performance review process remains, and is seen to be, objective. Grievances could arise if the appraisal process is potentially bias by the existence of the relationship. The same applies to any redundancy selection exercise. If one colleague is able to influence the process to "rescue" another colleague, this could give rise to unfair dismissal claims being brought by the employees who were dismissed.

Taking all of this into account, the new couple may think it best to keep the relationship private. In some countries it is not uncommon for employers to have policies requiring staff to disclose any personal relationships. In the UK this is extremely uncommon. Unless it creates a conflict of interest from a business perspective it would not be justifiable to discipline a colleague for keeping a personal relationship with a colleague under wraps. For the sake of maintaining good relations, however, a common sense approach is recommended. Most people share a degree of personal information with colleagues – it helps to gel working relationships. Your employer, and colleagues, may feel a bit let down if a relationship is kept secret even if there is nothing they can do about it.

Even if your employer finds out about it and isn't happy with this degree of familiarity amongst its staff, it cannot require the employees to stop seeing each other – this would not be a "reasonable and lawful" instruction.

Phase 3: Ending the Relationship

This may seem terribly pessimistic, but realistically some of the frogs you have to kiss before you find your prince (or princess) may be work colleagues.

Just as the employer could not stop the employees from seeing each other, the employees cannot require their employer to make arrangements so they do not have to work together after the split. They will have to grin and bear it and the employer can require them to work together in a professional manner.

If one member of the former couple cannot behave professionally towards the other following the split then, again, there is a risk of harassment claims and constructive unfair dismissal. In particular this may be a risk if one party puts pressure on the other to find a new job.

Of course, it may all end happily. On a positive note, around half of all workplace romances result in marriage. Colleagues who date each other shouldn't forget that there are three people in the relationship – including the employer. Whilst three is usually a crowd, the good news is that your employer won't interfere with your romance if your romance doesn't interfere with your work!

Gemma Herbertson
Dundas & Wilson LLP

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances

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