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Is love in the air in your workplace this Valentines Day?

Published 12 February 2013

Valentines Day - the day on which traditionally 'love is in the air'. Statistics have shown that a significant proportion of us now meet our 'loved one' at work and around 70% of employees have had a relationship with a work colleague. Conducting a romantic relationship in the workplace is not, however, without its difficulties.

When the relationship is going well there are few difficulties for the couple, but their relationship may still have a negative impact on the working environment. The couple may be under the impression that their relationship is secret, only to learn that it is common knowledge. This in turn can lead to potential allegations of favouritism and/or preferential treatment which can impact on efficient team working and employee performance.Things often only get worse if the relationship breaks down. Allegations of bullying and harassment are not uncommon, together with victimisation and discrimination. Ultimately one or both individuals may leave the business causing upset and disruption.

Dealing with a workplace harassment issue immediately and appropriately is half the battle and should minimise the risk of a claim. In particular, the law protects employers who are able to demonstrate clearly that they took all reasonable steps to prevent an employee from acting unlawfully. Furthermore, tackling the issue head on will go some way in deterring others.

But the fact that so many people meet their life partners in the office and continue to work together shows that workplace romances are not necessarily always a problem. Although issues relating to workplace relationships are not an everyday occurrence, the best way of dealing with the same is to have a clear and open approach. This ensures that the parameters are clear, and that individuals involved in a relationship are treated fairly and consistently, should action need to be taken.

It’s worth having in place a policy which deals with potential workplace romances. For example, you may consider prohibiting relationships between managers and their subordinates, employees and clients/customers, and/or between employees in the same department. You may also consider transferring an employee to another part of the organisation to ensure that the couple do not work closely together. You will however, need to make sure that by taking action in this way, you are not discriminating against your workforce. For example, if moving an employee to a different department might be considered a demotion, then this could amount to an act of sex discrimination.

Some employers are so concerned that they formally outlaw personal relationships in the workplace altogether. Clearly different considerations apply when the relationship crosses the professional/client divide – for example, teachers and pupils, or doctors and patients – in which case strict guidelines need to be enforced by employers. However, in most employment situations a complete ban is unworkable and the better option is to have in place a reasonable and properly drafted policy and to make sure that your employees are aware of it.

(The information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Berg or any of its partners or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.)

Nigel Crebbin
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Berg Solicitors
0161 817 2817

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