Kiss and tell? HR’s role in relationships at work

REX/Courtesy Everett Collection
REX/Courtesy Everett Collection

When does a relationship at work need to be declared? How does an employer strike the right balance between respecting lovebirds’ privacy and protecting its business interests? Virginia Matthews reports.

“If you work for PwC, you are never off duty. We drum it into all our trainees that they represent a well-known professional accountancy firm both at work and in their downtime; particularly so if they’re in a social situation and have had a few drinks,” says Sarah Churchman, head of diversity and inclusion and employee wellbeing at the firm.

Churchman dislikes the whole notion of US-style love contracts or “consensual relationship agreements”, because they intrude on private lives and, under UK law, offer scant protection against potential sexual harassment claims if an affair turns sour.

Yet, in common with a growing number of organisations spanning everything from consumer goods to local government, PwC makes it a condition of employment that any potentially serious office liaison – particularly one that involves a manager and a direct report – is officially disclosed and managed appropriately.

If they don’t tell us, somebody else in the department will” Sarah Churchman, PwC

“You can’t legislate against office romances or indeed falling in love, and any outright ban would be totally unworkable,” says Churchman. “But you do have to put in protocols for when relationships occur because there may well be commercial considerations to consider and it may also be necessary to relocate one of the lovers to a different department.”

While many couples may react to the disclosure rules trend by keeping their liaison strictly hush-hush, office gossips remain a tireless and extremely helpful source of information for HR, she adds.

“We believe that the only way to manage relationships is for them to be totally out in the open, and we expect our people to be professional enough to tell us when they occur. In truth, if they don’t tell us, somebody else in the department will, not because they are necessarily behaving in an inappropriate manner, but simply because they may fear a problem with favouritism.”

In May, Ipswich Borough Council made headlines when it introduced a new code of conduct making it obligatory to report to line managers short-term sexual flings as well as long-term relationships, but to Helen Farr, a partner in the employment group at city law practice Fox Williams, concern over the impact of even transitory love affairs between colleagues is not restricted to town halls.

“A whole range of organisations are becoming very worried about office romances and if they could find a way of doing so, some would like to impose a blanket ban on the grounds that they are wholly inappropriate in a business environment,” says Farr.

“Yet while employers dislike in-house affairs because they tend to get messy, the desire to manage personal relationships for the good of the business is incredibly complex, both legally and ethically.”

Although organisations may opt for different strategies for dealing with workplace flings – some more draconian than others – no single approach is free from the risk either of a future sex discrimination or harassment claim, or possibly a privacy challenge under human rights legislation, she believes.

Despite the obvious complications of kiss-and-tell policies – for example, when exactly should a relationship be reported? After a first date or only when full consummation has taken place? – long working hours have undoubtedly helped make in-house entanglements the rule rather than the exception.

With recent surveys suggesting that 80 per cent of staff view the office as an ideal place to meet their next mate, Farr believes that the majority of employers should now consider adding a “pillow talk” clause to the staff handbook.

HR tends to focus on the negative aspects of colleagues falling in love, but in my experience cooperation between different departments can markedly increase when there’s an ongoing relationship” William Rogers, UKRD

“Whatever the size of an organisation, office romances are part and parcel of corporate life and carry implications. While there may still be problems to confront – a couple having sex in the boardroom or behaving in an overtly sexual way may trigger disciplinary charges for example – in an imperfect world, disclosure is probably better than nothing,” she says.

Donna Miller, European HR director at the US-owned Enterprise, says that while the firm “tries to discourage” relationships from occurring, “we do understand that they do and our expectation is that employees will be upfront about this so that personnel decision-making can be done in a professional manner”.

Termed “fraternisation” in the Enterprise staff handbook, the failure to divulge any relationship involving a manager and direct report is cause for demotion, transfer, resignation or other disciplinary action, including dismissal.

Miller adds: “Our primary concern is that employees in a relationship cannot be in a reporting relationship – I might mention that this includes relatives as well. From time to time, it does get tricky, and from time to time, it doesn’t end well. Either the relationship ends – or the relationship advances – which makes some promotion decisions challenging.”

Churchman takes a similar view: “If it turns out that people are in the same department, we won’t want that to continue, partly because of the impact on other members of the team. Aside from our commitment to meritocracy and fairness potentially being jeopardised, there could also be an issue of sensitive information being used as a lever of power.”

Yet according to other employers, any move to immerse love and romance in HR processes should be resisted, not simply because it smacks of snooping, but because the majority of sexual dalliances between colleagues are fleeting and may even be good for business.

“HR tends to focus on the negative aspects of colleagues falling in love, but in my experience cooperation between different departments can markedly increase when there’s an ongoing relationship spanning different job roles,” says William Rogers, chief executive of commercial radio operator UKRD.

“Although there can be problems when the relationship involves colleagues from the same team, particularly when they involve a manager and a subordinate, we will continue to oppose adding any sort of official disclosure obligation to the staff handbook,” he adds.

While Rogers doesn’t force lovers to tell their managers what is going on in their private lives, he says that the fact that many do is a mark of the trust and professionalism of staff. For those who choose not to spill the beans, however, there is the ever-present danger of the rumour mill.

“If people feel that individuals are getting preferential treatment because of a relationship with someone more senior, resentment and anger can quickly build. If the perceived unfairness results in them leaving the firm, there may even be a case of wrongful dismissal to answer. For those reasons, we are very relieved when we learn about a relationship, even if the information is second hand.”

To Audrey Williams, employment law partner at Eversheds, the obligation to disclose long-term affairs undoubtedly makes good business sense, but she notes that for any couple who do decide to keep their love under wraps, there could be problems ahead.

“If it is left up to a third party to inform management of the relationship, this not only looks bad for the couple concerned, but it also makes management think there are more potential problems than perhaps there are,” she says.

“While I dislike the term ‘love contracts’, I believe that this sort of case comes under the heading of conflict of interest, which in other contexts, is quite clearly something that organisations will not allow.

“It should be made very plain to staff, particularly managers, that the repercussions of keeping a significant liaison quiet may be very unwelcome.”

About Virginia Matthews

Virginia Matthews is a freelance journalist.
  • Martin W.

    ““If you work for PwC, you are never off duty…” What a joyous organisation that must be to work for! I agree there are behavioural obligations when attending corporate social events e.g. Christmas parties, but Ms Churchman’s ’employee well-being’ policy sounds high-handed and intrusive. No employer has the right to dicate employees’ lawful activity outside working hours – and I baulk at her term ‘downtime'; when you’re not at work, you’re time’s your own, simple as!