Dangerous liaisons

Are your employees getting cosy over the photocopier this Valentine’s Day? According to University of Westminster psychology lecturer Chantal Gautier, the workplace is the ideal place to find your partner.

Research among airline employees, financial and IT recruitment workers has shown that long hours, increased numbers of female employees and “cultural fit” recruitment practices have all contributed to the number of knowing glances cast around the water cooler.

But while such stories may warm the heart, failed relationships can cause serious headaches. “Employers are walking a tightrope between not interfering with employees’ private lives and protecting them from harassment,” says Mark Higgins, head of employment law at Betesh Fox law firm.

The right to a private life is enshrined in the Human Rights Act and means direct interference in an employee’s affairs is not an option. “You can’t have a policy that states no employee can have a relationship with another,” says Higgins.

But a loving relationship can become more sinister if one party decides the fire has gone out while the other believes it still burns. “If you have a couple who split and one of them is intimidating the other, the employer could be potentially liable for harassment,” Higgins adds.

The full extent of this problem should not be under-estimated. Never mind whether your employees can still work together, promotion and team work can become biased and offensive e-mails may be traded. While a caring employer may offer counselling for the brokenhearted, the affect of such an intervention could provide yet further grounds for legal action if one of the parties feels aggrieved as a result.

“If you have a good grievance procedure in place you should be able to create a climate where employees can take action before this kind of behaviour becomes a major issue,” says Dianah Worman, policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

“The situation is going to be different from organisation to organisation and from person to person, so you can’t create a single fix for such affairs.”

Indeed, legal advice focuses on addressing the act of harassment in the workplace rather than the relationship which might have caused it. Higgins stresses the importance of dignity in the workplace and equal opportunities policies to govern acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour – from face-to-face conduct to the use of e-mail.

Phillip Oppenheim, director of legal website Employersfriend.com agrees: “You can’t micro-manage your workforce. You can’t say come and see me if you want to go out with someone,” he says.

“Harassment policies must say what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and you need to have regular meetings with the workforce to ensure they know what to do when it happens and that you are addressing problems before they get out of hand.”

The path of true love never did run smooth, but however it may run in the workplace, employers are advised to make sure they have clear and understood policies in place. This means employers are protected before l’amour becomes litigation.



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