Office policies: Book of love

Mike Young
HR director UK and Ireland, Avaya

We don’t have anything formal written down as we prefer to treat each case individually. But if there’s a relationship in a reporting line that’s too risky for everyone concerned and not fair on the team. It also lays the individuals open to accusations of favouritism. In these cases you have to move at least one of the couple – often the junior individual. It’s just too fraught with difficulties to keep them together.

Work is where most couples meet. It’s only when they’re connected in practical areas like pay and bonus decisions that difficulties arise, because there will always be suspicion. However, you don’t want to imply that the couple have done anything wrong as they haven’t.

You also hope that people will tell their managers before it becomes a problem and look to the company to help them with it. Often they are worried about the situation and looking to you for some help.

As a rule, you’d like to know what’s going on in case it causes problems later if the relationship ends or become serious. You need to develop an environment of openness where people can come to you and explain things whenever they want.

But as relationships are different there are no rules that can possibly cover them all. The last thing HR wants to develop is some form of policy that turns them into the relationship police.

Dominic Mahony
HR director, Thomson Travel

We don’t have a ‘love contract’ as such but what we do have is a policy that tries to make sure there’s no conflict of interest if, say, a husband and wife are working together. This extends to any family member – particularly if there’s a situation where you have a close relationship with someone you’re reporting to.

For instance, if a husband is doing his wife’s appraisal it is reasonable that the couple come to the HR department and talk the issues through so we can find an amicable solution. It could be a case of moving them to other areas or giving one a different person to report to.

It’s important to the couple and the rest of the team to know that everything is being done fairly and without any conflict of interest. But throughout it all we would look at what was appropriate.

A lot of rubbish was written about love contracts when they came out and the reality is that a lot of people in any business will have a relationship.

The guidelines are there to do what we can to help people and ensure the reporting lines are fair in case there’s any chance of a conflict of interest.

Penny De Valk
Managing director, Ceridian HR Consulting

Most employers are realistic about things and realise that people are working such long hours these days that it’s inevitable some of them will have a relationship. So many firms will have some form of fraternisation policy in place to handle potential problems. The vital thing is to drive in maximum transparency within this and develop an expectation of professional behaviour among employees.

In general it’s only the organisation’s business when the relationship somehow undermines its credibility or where it has a conflict of interests.

Otherwise, the individuals will rightly think: ‘this is really intrusive what business is it of yours?’

In many cases, it’s what’s perceived by the rest of the staff that’s vital. And the only way to get around this is maximum transparency. The couple might both be completely professional but they have to show this in everything they do. The firm also has to ask if the relationship will affect an individual’s judgement.

It’s for this reason that larger companies have standard policies about conflicts of interest. SMEs are less likely to have formalised it but it is good to have something in writing as you don’t come across it often and it may help to sort things out. It shows everyone what they have to do: get everything on the table, make sure there’s no conflict of interest and act accordingly.

Despite this, it’s always difficult. But the advantage of a policy is that managers can go to it and have a grown-up conversation about what to do.

David Owen
Personnel officer, Lancaster University

Lancaster is a very close community as people tend to stay here for a number of years. We’re also the largest employer in the area. As a result, it’s not unusual for people to meet, whether they’re academics or not, and we have lots of husbands and wives across the campus.

In most cases, people are open about their relationships and this doesn’t cause us any problems. The only difference is if there’s some form of authorisation route, as they are then kept apart to avoid suspicion.

With students we operate as a centralised function but most of the responsibility is delegated to heads of department in academic areas. A lot of emphasis is placed on the lecturer to flag up a relationship if it’s started, which is not always an easy thing to do.

When it becomes common knowledge we encourage managers to have a quiet conversation with the lecturer, just to let them know that people are starting to talk about the relationship. If the student is under their control we will then try to move them to a different tutor group to make sure that the integrity of both parties is not being compromised.

At Lancaster we are looking for people to enjoy their work and develop meaningful careers, so the last thing we want to do is interfere with their personal lives. That’s a lot easier if people are open about it rather than continuing some form of clandestine relationship that might get everyone into difficulties.

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