Does your office need a romance policy?

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With Valentine’s Day around the corner, love is in the air and employees may indulge in a spot of flirting at work or send their clandestine crush a card.

In fact, around 15% of people meet their partner through work, according to a survey by ReportLinker technology firm. But what sort of impact do relationships at work have on a business and should employers have a policy for managing office romances?

Can office relationships be good for business ?

Alison King, managing director of Bespoke HR consultancy, says relationships at work are inevitable and that they can be a good thing for business.

“Relationships between colleagues can have a very positive impact on the business, such as encouraging co-operation between teams. Unfortunately, however, we tend to hear only about the negatives, where relationships breakdown or if an allegation of sexual harassment is made,” she notes.

Employers may, King advises, have some form of policy about voluntary disclosure of relationships at work, but it’s not something they can actively discourage.

“You may want to have some documentation in this regard encouraging the voluntary disclosure of relationships, but without being over Draconian, because, of course, everyone has a right to privacy.”

Declaring a conflict of interest

Most employment contracts will also include a duty to declare any conflict of interest, which would include a relationship between a manager and someone in their reporting line. It is a balance between respecting employee’s private lives and protecting the business against potential sex discrimination or harassment claims, King says.

Karen Teago, joint CEO & principal solicitor at Yess law, says a relationship between staff, especially if you’re running a small practice, can cause a number of issues. “For example, a relationship between a senior and junior member of staff leading to favouritism. Or two people in the same department wanting to go on holiday at the same time. Or disruption and upset if a relationship ends.”

Sending Valentines cards or flirting with a colleague may not automatically cause problems but it depends on the context, according to Teago. “It depends if those things are disruptive to the work environment or not welcomed by the recipient and the protagonist persists with unwanted approaches,” she notes. In which case, there is a risk of that behaviour being classed as sexual harassment for which the employer could be liable (as well as the individual themselves.)

Creating a policy

It would, however, be unrealistic and extreme to ban relationships at work outright, Teago says. “A more workable policy would include safeguards against the more predictable issues arising, but no employer will ever be able to include every possible scenario in a policy and shouldn’t try,” she says. “The key is to look at what is a reasonable response to any problem. Managers wanting to discuss possible issues should avoid making assumptions about the situation, establish facts and preserve confidentiality, as with any sensitive employment matter.”

King points out that any harassment that relates to someone’s gender is also prohibited under the Equality Act 2010. “This could include telling jokes about women or making derogatory sexist remarks about women,” she notes. “A Valentines card sent as a bit of light-hearted fun could also fall into this category, depending on the nature of the card.”

Trusting your employees

If an employer find that two employees are involved in a relationship which may be a cause for concern, they should, in the first instance, try and have an informal talk with the employees involved. “It would be best practice to chat to all parties involved informally initially to assess whether any further formal investigation is required,” King advises.

“If there any concerns about an employee’s behaviour in the workplace, these should be informally investigated and a decision should be made as to whether there is a potential case to answer and if it is necessary to convene a disciplinary hearing.”

Ultimately, it’s down to trust and the relationship employees have with their employer. ‘If there is a relationship of trust between the employer and employees it is more likely to create an open dialogue where employees feel able to be open about relationships in the workplace, whether in the early stages or after a relationship breakdown,” says King. “This can help to facilitate early constructive intervention, if appropriate and it doesn’t flout the employee’s right to privacy.” It is, essentially, much more likely to be sensitively resolved if there is a high degree to trust.

Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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