Office relationships

We’ve just found out that one of our managers is having a relationship with one of his junior reports. How can we stop this disrupting the rest of the team?

Work relationships, whether they flourish or fail, can have a negative impact in various ways, including a possible decline in work standards, actual or perceived favouritism, conflicts of interest and confidentiality issues. Assuming you are sure they are having a relationship (and it’s not just a rumour), you could speak to them informally, explaining your concerns, and emphasising the importance of continuing as usual at work and separating their personal and professional lives.

You might also discuss ways to avoid potential problem areas, such as reallocating teams and arranging for a different manager to deal with the junior employee’s appraisal.

Can we transfer one of the couple to another department, or dismiss them?

Check the employment contract to see if it allows you to transfer the employee. If it doesn’t, you will need their agreement. Even if it does, you must act reasonably to avoid breaching the duty of trust and confidence. For example, it would probably be unreasonable if the transfer was a demotion or the employee was moved to a role without having any necessary training.

Dismissing an employee just for having a relationship at work is very likely to be unfair. You may be able to dismiss fairly if you have good reason to believe that the relationship is likely to damage the business – for example, by causing serious dissent within the team, or threatening the security of confidential information. Dismissal should be a last resort after exploring all other alternatives, in consultation with the employee.

Transferring or dismissing only one of the couple could lead to a successful sex discrimination claim (assuming this is an opposite sex relationship). To reduce this risk, carefully consider which employee should be transferred or dismissed and why, using objective reasons and documenting the process.

Avoid a blanket policy that the most junior employee is automatically the one to be transferred or dismissed whatever the circumstances, as this could be indirect sex discrimination if there is a higher proportion of women among your junior staff (and is unlikely to be justified). Always consider what is most appropriate in each individual situation.

Are we at risk of a sexual harassment claim if the relationship goes wrong?

There is potential for a sexual harassment allegation when a work relationship ends. The rejected partner might claim harassment as a form of revenge, or may continue to pursue their former lover who then complains of harassment.

You will be liable as employer for any harassment, unless you can show that you took reasonable steps to prevent it. Your best protection is to have an appropriate equal opportunities policy, which specifically deals with sexual harassment. The policy should be clearly communicated to all employees (by providing a copy to all new joiners and then circulating any future updated versions), and staff should be given training in the policy. Managers, in particular, should be trained to be aware of warning signs, so that problems can be addressed early on. Also, make sure your policy is consistently enforced.

Together, these steps should reduce the risk of harassment occurring, and if you do receive a claim, will assist your defence that you did what you could to prevent it.

Could a policy on relationships at work help us avoid problems in the future?

Yes it could. There are various provisions you could set out to avoid future problems, including:

  • Standards expected at work (for example, no public displays of affection).
  • A requirement to disclose the relationship (perhaps limited to appropriate situations, such as employees within the same team, or where regulatory issues may arise), with an assurance of confidentiality.
  • Your right to reallocate responsibility for certain procedures (for example, appraisals, disciplinary or grievance hearings) to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

The possibility that one or both of the couple could be transferred or dismissed if you deem this necessary in the interests of the business. Your ability to do this would be subject to the considerations above, but it is helpful for employees to be aware of the potential outcome.

While it may be unrealistic to attempt to stop work relationships from blossoming in the first place, an appropriate policy can help avoid the negative consequences that might otherwise grow from an office romance.

Anna West, employment lawyer, Travers Smith

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