A recent study by Approved Index has found that more than six out of ten people have been involved in at least one workplace romance.
The same study also found that half of workplace romances involve at least one person who was in a relationship or married, and that approximately one third of workplace romances lead to a long term relationship.
There are no laws in England governing relationships in the workplace. Such situations need to be handled with care because they have the potential to result in claims of discrimination, harassment and unfair dismissal.
It is important for employers to be aware of the steps they can take to address these potential issues that can be created by relationships in the workplace.
An example of a complicated relationship in the office was highlighted in the case of Wilton v Timothy James Consulting. In this case the Tribunal found that an employee had been unfairly constructively dismissed as a result of the impact of various intimate relationships in her working environment. A CEO had previously been involved in a personal sexual relationship with a Manager. The CEO then entered a relationship with a Consultant. The CEO continually undermined the Manager’s authority over the Consultant by for example authorising holiday when it had previously been refused by the Manager. The Manager felt humiliated and eventually resigned. The Tribunal found the Manager had been unfairly constructively dismissed. This demonstrates a good example of where preferential treatment between a couple had an adverse impact on their colleagues.
In Plange v Cambria Automobiles Ltd, An employee was employed as a services adviser in a car show room. The employee had a short, consensual sexual relationship with the general site manager. When the employee’s employment was brought to an end, she complained she was sexually harassed by the manager. The Tribunal found the manager had sexually harassed the employee by making various comments of a sexual nature and by touching her inappropriately.
Many employers overlook the fact that the Equality Act 2010 provides that anything done by a person in the course of their employment must be treated as also done by the employer, save for situations where the employer can establish that they took reasonable steps, as a defence. Consequently, an employer can be held liable for the actions of its employees.
Drafting a Workplace Romance Policy
Employers can manage the situation by having a written workplace romance policy within their employee handbook. This policy should ideally set out clear and comprehensive guidelines on the employer’s stance on this issue.
Guidelines can include banning senior and delegate relationships, requiring disclosure of relationships, or for seniors to move positions when relationships develop. If employees are on notice of such a policy then this is evidence that they understand and acknowledge it should any of these situations arise within the workplace. Employees do have a right to privacy so a policy would need to be necessary, reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances.