Avoid Your Own Office ‘Svengate’

A
workplace policy covering sexual relationships between colleagues could help HR
managers avoid tangled difficulties such as ‘Svengate’, writes Paul Yandall

The
revelations of alleged relationships between a secretary at the FA and both its
chief executive and the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson have highlighted the
difficulties office romances can cause.

Although
intimate relationships between work colleagues are not unusual, and rarely
cause problems, they can be fraught for employers if they cause resentment
among other workers or end badly.

And
when one party is in a position of authority over the other, the potential for
serious employment law problems increases dramatically, says Will Clayton, a
partner at specialist law firm Dent, Raven & Marsdens.

“The
less senior colleague may find it difficult to accept managerial instructions
from their former partner as easily as they would have had they not had an
affair,” says Clayton.

Alternatively,
other employees may feel they have grounds for a claim against their employer
if they think they have been treated unfavourably by a manager compared to that
manager’s partner.

“A
senior executive who abuses managerial powers in situations of this kind could
be vulnerable to disciplinary action or dismissal, depending on the severity of
the offence,” says Clayton.

So
what can employers do to ensure such relationships don’t cause problems? Can
employers simply ban intimate relationships between employees? Can they afford
to ignore them?

“To
try to ban relationships would be difficult because of [privacy] laws, and also
a little unrealistic,” says Kate Ormrod, an employment law specialist at Aaron
and Partners.

Recent
research shows workplace romances are on the rise as more women enter the workplace,
particularly into formerly male-dominated professions, and as people spend more
time at work.

“In
the US, it’s much more commonplace to have a ‘no dating’ agreement, which
people have to sign up to, but hardly anyone here has them,” says Ormrod.

“I
think there’s a feeling in Britain that to try and stop these types of
relationships is going a bit too far – a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack
a nut.”

But
that does not mean employers cannot not take steps to protect their
organisation if problems arise.

A
workplace policy covering family as well as sexual relationships could help
employers and employees during times of friction or sensitive conflicts of
interest, says Ormrod.

A
well-drafted policy could remind staff to take extra care when a professional
inequality existed in the relationship, and also highlight the company’s
harassment policy so that partners know their rights if problems arise.

It
could also provide for the relationship to be reported in confidence to a
senior manager and might have to entail a provision for a change in reporting
structure for the employees involved.

HR
managers often have to walk a fine line between respecting the privacy of the
employees in a relationship and ensuring the workplace functions smoothly.

“But
trying to dictate or to be heavy-handed would be overstepping the mark for most
organisations,” says Ormrod.

“The
key is openness, honesty and tackling issues head-on before they become a
problem.”

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