Heartache can lead to a headache for employers

Worried about romances in the workplace? Ensure you have a policy that is
made clear to employees, or else you could land yourself with costly
discrimination claims

Valentine’s Day may have been and gone, but employers’ concerns about the
potential impact of romantic relationships at work have not.

They worry about accusations of bias and favouritism if a worker becomes
involved with their line manager. Then there is the potential for decreased
productivity caused by tensions that arise when a relationship is not going
well, and the potential distraction of office gossip. In the most dire cases,
employers could even find themselves in court.

As a consequence, some employers have placed restrictions on such relationships,
forbidding them altogether, or only allowing them under specific circumstances.
In our experience, this results in a counterproductive culture of secrecy,
where workers fear they will be disciplined for breaching company rules,
however unclear they may be. Recent research by our company found that only
one-third of workers who’d had a relationship with a colleague were completely
open about it.

It also found that relationships at work are extremely common, with almost
two-thirds of workers admitting to a fling with a colleague, while half
admitted it had an impact on their work. In almost half the cases, one partner
was more senior than the other. More than a third were unsure about their
organisation’s policy on workplace relationships, and a similar number believed
there wasn’t a policy.

The negative impact on the employer was clear from the research, with 20 per
cent of those who had had a relationship at work leaving as a result, leading
to a loss of vital skills and experience, as well as the costs associated with
staff turnover. But what about the legal issues facing both employers and staff
when workplace relationships are in dispute?

In a recent case (Chief constable of Bedfordshire Constabulary v Graham
[2002] IRLR 239 EAT), the applicant, a female police officer married to a chief
superintendent in the same force, had her appointment to the post of area
inspector withdrawn, as her husband would have become her divisional commander.

The applicant succeeded in her claims of indirect sex discrimination and
discrimination on the grounds of marital status. The employer’s justification
related to potential bias, particularly when it came to performance or absence
management. But the employee successfully argued that in those situations, problems
could have been avoided – for example, by replacing her line manager with
somebody else. Clearly, this argument does not always hold water.

Considerations about private life then lead us to the Human Rights Act 2000,
which gives public sector staff the right to respect for their private lives.
Relationships may start in the office, but they usually blossom outside of it
and may not affect the individuals (or anybody else) at work. A blanket
restriction will directly infringe this right to a private life, and these
individuals will be better able to argue that employers’ restrictions on
workplace relationships are unnecessary and intrusive.

Most importantly, where employers have relied on internal policies and
discretion to ‘move’ one or other partner to another department, complaints of
discrimination, unfair treatment and potentially constructive dismissal can
arise – for example, where the female partner, who may hold a less senior
position at work, is the one required to move.

Both the legal issues and the potential loss of staff and productivity
suggest that employers should rethink their approach. They need to balance
business with personal interests and determine when business interests must
prevail. They can only do this by carrying out a risk assessment of the likely
impact of relationships on the workplace. Therefore, we have developed a
radical new policy approach.

We advise employers to accept that relationships are the norm. Do not
discriminate against staff in relationships just because they might create
difficulties. Instead, encourage openness, and find ways around potential
issues, rather than threatening disciplinary action or transfer.

Identify where your business and credibility must be protected. Areas to
consider are financial exposure, breach of confidence, conflict of interest,
team issues and professional distance requirements. Prepare a clear, fair
policy, communicate it well and consult staff over any necessary changes.

Derek Kemp, Chairman,
Human & Legal Resources

Comments are closed.