Workplace relationships – romantic fiction or horror story?

15 February, 2017

With good timing for St Valentine’s Day, interesting researworkplacech was published this week on the subject of workplace relationships by the employee engagement firm Perkbox.

A third of employees reported having a relationship with a work colleague at some point in their career, with a sixth of these relationships resulting in marriage or civil partnership. On the down side, one in seven employees reported that they had had to leave their jobs primarily because of a failed romance with a work colleague.

According to the study, general attitudes towards workplace relationships were broadly, but not universally, supportive. 67% of employees, and 62% of managers, believed that workplace relationships are not a problem as long as they do not interfere with work.  However a quarter of employers had policies in place discouraging romantic relationships at work, and in some cases (7%) employers sought to prohibit them in the wording of employment contracts.

Personal relationships policies

Employers which seek to introduce blanket prohibitions on personal relationships would be seen to fly in the face of reality, with the potential for adverse effect on recruitment, staff morale and retention. It could be argued, particularly where the employer is in the public sector, that such a prohibition would infringe the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.  For similar reasons there has been little appetite in the UK for the implementation of “love contracts”, sometimes found in the USA, in which employees in a personal relationship are required to confirm that they have not been coerced into the relationship, with a view to the employer avoiding liability for subsequent sexual harassment claims.

The recommended approach for employers is to strike a fair balance between the protection of their business interests and a respect for the privacy of their employees, and to view workplace relationships as an issue of concern only where they have an impact on conduct at work. In particular it is common to see a relationships policy which requires employees to disclose personal relationships which present the risk of a conflict of interest or risk “pillow-talk” breaches of confidentiality.

Personal relationships between managers and their direct reports are a particular area of concern for employers, with for example the risks that these improperly affect the allocation of work duties and influence decisions about promotions and pay increases. Equally in this situation there are potentially catastrophic consequences for the line management relationship, and for the wider team, if the personal relationship between supervisor and subordinate comes to an end.

An appropriate disclosure policy will mitigate these risks, in particular enabling suitable safeguards to be introduced such as alternative reporting lines. In some contexts an absolute bar on personal relationships between managers and direct reports may be suitable.  For example in a case in 2007 such a policy operated by Hampshire Police was found to be justified in the aim of managing the risks of undue influence and favouritism affecting the integrity of the force.

It will also be appropriate for some organisations to have policies which address the risks of employees forming personal relationships with their clients/customers which conflict with their professional duties and responsibilities.

Employers must also ensure that the adoption and application of relationships policies do not create the grounds for discrimination claims. For example in 2015 Port Vale Football Club lost a sex discrimination claim after it dismissed its events sales manager over rumours of an affair with the club’s leading striker, against whom no action was taken even though the club had strict rules over player-staff workplace relationships.

Employers should have clear grievance and anti-harassment policies in place as a framework in which to address complaints of favouritism and to manage the situation where the ending of workplace relationships spills over into unwanted or disruptive conduct.

For those interested in further discussion on these issues, Radio 4’s “The Bottom Line” on Thursday 16 February is on the theme of “Managing Workplace Relationships”.