What can an employer do about an office romance?
Published 28 June 2021
Matt Hancock’s widely publicised breach of social-distancing guidelines put paid to his tenure as health secretary and highlighted the peril of workplace romances.
He handed in his resignation after images emerged of him in his office in an embrace, and much closer than he should have been with a female aide (1)
Mr Hancock apologised for his actions but it was not enough to save his job after he was branded a hypocrite for breaking the rules that he introduced.
The flagrant breach of social-distancing guidelines, banning indoor social gatherings from different households at the time, was pivotal in the former health secretary’s resignation.
But, and this is crucial as we near the end of lockdown scheduled for 19 July, what can an employer do in normal circumstances if two colleagues form a consensual romantic relationship in the workplace?
We are all entitled to a private life and having a intimate relationship with a workmate, which does not breach any rules, should not in itself be a sacking offence.
It would be wrong to simply dismiss an employee because management disapproved of the relationship.
Should that happen, the individual could have a claim for unfair dismissal if they have more than two years’ service (2)
Workplace relationships can certainly be problematic for employers if there is a clear power imbalance in the pairing.
In 2019 McDonald’s reportedly fired its CEO after he was said to have had a relationship with an employee (3)
The US fast food giant said the relationship was consensual, but the CEO had "violated company policy" and shown "poor judgement".
McDonald’s had a “standards policy” which prohibits dating or sexual relationships between employees who have a “direct or indirect reporting relationship”.
The difficult challenge for an employer is that although a workplace romance can be considered a part of working life, it has to balance the workers’ right to a private life with the wider interests of the business.
A large portion of our adult life revolves around work. A study found British workers spend an average of 3,507 days at work including 204 days of overtime in their lifetime. (4)
With so much time dedicated to work, office romances are not uncommon. Although there may be risks to the harmony and professionalism of the workplace, many couples are able to successfully work together.
An employer should make clear the standards it expects from its workforce and have clear policies and procedures in place to deal with any inappropriate behaviour.
All employers should have recognised and established policies in place to address any form of bullying or sexual harassment.
An employer may want to avoid such problems and simply impose a draconian ban on all workplace romances.
However, be warned that such a policy is likely to be illegal and conflict with Article 8 of The Human Rights Act, which ensures the right to a private life, even when at work (5)
Perhaps the best way to get the balance right is the implementation of rules that require staff to disclose workplace relationships to management or HR, so that they can be managed appropriately.
It can be considered a reasonable move that does not go as far as introducing ‘a love contract’ such as those used in the US (6)
The contract is essentially the employer’s acknowledgement that it recognises that certain employees are engaged in an intimate relationship with each other and that their relationship is consensual.
The agreement usually includes a reminder for the employees about who to turn to for help should sexual harassment or conflict of interest become an issue.
In other words, the aim of the love contract is to help protect both the employer and employees from litigation caused by sexual harassment.
While legally there may be nothing wrong in asking employees to disclose a romantic relationship, enforcing such a policy can be a bigger issue. Especially if it does not create a legitimate conflict of interests or lead to any inappropriate conduct.
Any concerns about an office romance should be treated extremely carefully.
(1) Matt Hancock hands his resignation in. https://www.channel4.com/news/matt-hancock-resigns-as-tory-mps-join-calls-for-his-resignation [Internet] www.channel4.com [Cited 28.6.2021]
(2) Unfair dismissal https://castleassociates.org.uk/employment-law-a-z/unfair-dismissal [Internet] castleassociates.org.uk [Cited 28.6.2021]
(4) A study found British workers spend an average of 3,507 days at work https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/british-people-work-days-lifetime-overtime-quit-job-survey-study-a8556146.html [Internet] www.independent.co.uk [Cited 28.6.2021]
(5) The Human Rights Act, which ensures the right to a private life, even when at work https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/42/schedule/1 [Internet] www.legislation.gov.uk [Cited 28.6.2021]
(6) US has introduced ‘a love contract’ https://www.lawdepot.com/blog/love-contracts-how-to-handle-romance-in-the-workplace/#:~:text=A%20love%20contract%20is%20essentially%20the%20employer%E2%80%99s%20acknowledgement,each%20other%20and%20that%20their%20relationship%20is%20consensual [Internet] www.lawdepot.com [Cited 28.6.2021]
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