Cupid’s arrow in the workplace

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and love is in the air (cue supermarket meal deals, paying over the odds for red roses and love mixtapes) and as the old adage goes, love knows no bounds; cupid’s arrow can – and does – strike in the workplace.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has met their significant other at work. If that includes you, you are in good company. Think Barack and Michelle Obama, Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds. However, not everyone struck by cupid’s bow from across the open plan office will go on to live happily ever after (anyone still crying over the split of Brangelina?). Office romances can be as short-lived as the good biscuits in the office biscuit tin, or the memory of the weekend on Monday mornings. They don’t always end amicably either which can spell trouble for employers.

There are no employment laws against an office romance. Whereas in the US love contracts are commonplace, UK employers have long recognised that you can’t legislate affairs of the heart. Employers usually don’t take a zero-tolerance approach to romantic relationships because no two relationships are the same and their impact on the workplace, if any, will vary. Dismissing an employee for partaking in a ‘romantic liaison’ with a colleague when it is consensual and without impact on the business runs the risk of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination claims.

The trouble with love is everything is rosy until we fall out of love. Problems can arise when one half of the couple doesn’t want things to end, or the feeling isn’t mutual and one co-worker’s flirting or sexual advances are most definitely not welcome. The possibilities for sexual harassment complaints – and claims – are endless.

There are other issues to consider too, for example when the relationship is between supervisor and subordinate. This could give rise to a conflict of interest and accusations of favouritism from jealous colleagues. Depending on their respective positions in the business, how can the employer be sure that confidential information remains just that or if the relationship goes south, the subordinate doesn’t later claim he/she has been discriminated or retaliated against by the supervisor?

Love, romance and *whispers* sex are difficult subjects for employers to get to grips with, but employers need to know they are responsible for policing office romances and workplace relationships. It’s not unknown for employers in certain industries to enforce a policy of not allowing romantic relationships between co-workers in the same department. If one develops, one or both can then be transferred to a different department. But for most employers, the better approach may be to think carefully about the behaviour or conduct that they will not tolerate in the workplace including inappropriate physical contact or language or personal use of company communications systems for wooing. Employers then have their own very clear policies that they can communicate and enforce. Rules preventing those in relationships interviewing, managing or promoting each other may also be included and existing policies such as the equal opportunities policy could be updated to reflect the employer’s tolerance towards not only co-workers romantic relationships but their every day, platonic interactions with each other.

But a policy is only as good as the paper it’s written on. Employers need to do more. While Valentine’s Day may bring out the romantic in all of us (well, some of us - how romantic is a £15 supermarket meal deal anyway?), workplace relationships can blossom – and crash and burn – at any time of year. Routinely training employees on sexual harassment issues and professionalism might just avoid the drama of the next office breakup from being aired in the employment tribunal.

For help and advice on creating workplace policies or employment law please contact the Blackadders Employment Law team.

Donna Reynolds, partner, employment law, Blackadders LLP

Donna Reynolds, partner, employment law, Blackadders LLP