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Romantic and sexual relationships in the workplace

Published 19 June 2023

The fallout from Phillip Schofield’s dramatic departure from ITV reached Parliament with a focus on who knew what about an inappropriate workplace relationship and what was done about it.

Workplace relationships are not illegal, but certain behaviours can cross an ethical line.

An office romance is not uncommon, but they are often discouraged. Some employers even have specific guidelines against them.

How do you handle it if you and a colleague are interested in each other and want to start a relationship? Should you back off? Should you give your work priority over your personal feelings?

These are just a few of the many questions anyone may ponder before embarking on a relationship with a workmate.

Schofield left his long-time presenting role on This Morning after admitting lying about a relationship with a much younger male colleague.

It was a story that had dominated news headlines before ITV bosses appeared before a committee of MPs to answer questions about its approach to safeguarding and handling of complaints.

Schofield confessed to having a ‘foolish but legal’ affair with a male co-worker who was much younger than him (1 cited 16.6.23). The colleague was 20 years old when they began the affair, but they first met when the younger man was 15.

Dame Carolyn McCall, ITV chief executive, told MPs the relationship between Schofield and a younger staff member was ‘deeply inappropriate’ because of the ‘imbalance of power’ (2 cited 19.6.23) 

She said they would have taken action - but had no evidence of the relationship, and both men ‘repeatedly’ denied it.

The question as to if any workplace relationship can ever be appropriate is one that is likely to divide opinion.

The appropriateness of a relationship between colleagues will always depend on a number of factors such as the nature of the workplace, the culture of the organisation, the expectations of an employer and the consent of those involved.

Famously another former This Morning duo, Richard and Judy, met while first working together at Granada TV in the North West of England (3 cited 19.6.23) The couple have been married for 35 years.

Office romances are not uncommon. Colleagues can spend long hours working together, which can create a bond, friendship and attraction. And if you work in a high pressure demanding environment you may have a limited social life making it difficult to meet a partner elsewhere.

Previous research, in which more than 5,700 UK workers were quizzed, revealed that two thirds of workers (66 per cent) admitted to having either dated a colleague or considered it, compared to a third (34 per cent) who would completely rule it out (4 cited 19.6.23) 

The #MeToo movement led to greater awareness and sensitivity towards the issues of sexual harassment, discrimination and consent in the workplace (5 cited 19.6.23) 

It has seen a greater emphasis on transparency and disclosure of workplace relationships, especially if they involve a power imbalance or a conflict of interest.

Many employers now have relationship policies, which can include restrictions and rules on dating colleagues and banning relationships between certain roles or departments.

Steve Easterbrook, former global chief executive at McDonald’s, was fired for having a consensual relationship with another employee (6 cited19.6.23) The fast food giant - like many US employers - does not allow managers to have romantic relationships with direct or indirect employees.

Here are four key questions and answers that you need to know about workplace relationships.

 

What can be considered an inappropriate workplace relationship?

A romantic or sexual liaison between colleagues working together where one is in a more senior role or there is a supervisory relationship, or when there is a potential conflict of interest. Inappropriate relationships can vary in nature.

There can be conflicts of interest if one person has the ability to influence the other's career progression or work-related decisions.

A relationship can also be considered unsuitable if it breaches company policy. Many employers now have specific policies that ban certain types of relationships, or that include a requirement to disclose any such liaison.

Even in instances where  a relationship is appropriate, it can later be considered inappropriate if it causes significant workplace disruption or makes other employees feel uncomfortable. It could be as a result of over the top public displays of affection, unprofessional behaviour, or favouritism impacting on the dynamics of a team.

Workplace policies on relationships can vary. If you are unsure about the specific policies in your workplace, you should review your employer’s code of conduct or speak to HR or the appropriate person for guidance.

 

So are there situations in which it is ok to have a relationship with a colleague?

Yes, in certain circumstances. The relationship should be based on mutual consent and understanding and both employees should be able to make their own choices freely.

A couple must maintain professional boundaries and avoid any behaviour that may compromise their objectivity, fairness, or professional judgment.

It is advisable for colleagues in a relationship to be open, and disclosing the relationship to HR or management helps to maintain transparency, manage potential conflicts, and ensure fairness. It also helps to guarantee that the relationship does not breach any company policy.

Colleagues in a relationship should continue to treat each other with respect, professionalism, and consideration for the workplace.

Ultimately, the acceptability and appropriateness of a relationship between colleagues will depend on the specific circumstances, workplace policies, and potential impact on any working environment.

 

Should I report an inappropriate relationship between colleagues if I know about it?

It will depend on the nature and impact of the relationship, but reporting it can help to protect yourself and others from potential harm, discrimination or harassment.

Any evidence, credible information and details about the relationship you can provide to your employer is important. You need to be careful not to make false or malicious accusations, as it could have serious consequences for yourself and others.

It is understandable that you may know about a relationship, but be reluctant to report colleagues out of fear about how you will be perceived. However, you should seek advice from a trusted colleague, a mentor, a union representative or legal professional.

If you have legitimate and serious concerns that the relationship involves criminal activity or poses an immediate danger, you can contact the police.

 

What should an employer do if made aware of an inappropriate relationship between colleagues?

Take the matter seriously and investigate if there is a reasonable suspicion or evidence. Especially if it breaches professional standards, policies or codes of conduct, creates a conflict of interest, a risk of harm for others or involves sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct.

Employers have a duty to protect all employees and should never ignore or dismiss reports or signs of inappropriate relationships between colleagues.

Any investigation should be appropriate and should at least include the following:

  • Make the parties aware of the allegations and the investigation process.
  • Provide support and guidance to those involved.
  • Appoint an impartial, suitable and capable investigator.
  • Gather all relevant evidence.
  • Do not judge, and reach a reasonable finding based on the facts and evidence.
  • Take appropriate action, inform the parties and keep a record.

If an employer is made aware of an inappropriate workplace relationship, it should always take prompt and appropriate action to address the situation.

It is advisable to seek legal advice or support from HR professionals to ensure any action taken is appropriate and reasonable in the circumstances.

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