How to manage workplace romances | Problems, policies and possible legal risks

Written on 14 February 2022

What’s the recipe for managing romantic relationships between colleagues? A teaspoon of common sense, a dash of respecting privacy, and a generous helping of looking out for your business interests.

Are romantic relationships between colleagues a cause for concern?

Provided those involved are professional and capable of successfully separating their work and personal life, most relationships between colleagues won’t present problems for the employer. Of course, difficult and sensitive issues can and do arise.

One such issue that could arise is favouritism, or at least the perception of preferential treatment. For example, if some employees believe they are being passed over for promotion, getting fewer training opportunities or being treated less favourably than their colleague who is dating their line manager, this can lead to workplace tensions and resentment.

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But there's no legal risk, right?

Wrong. Workplace romances can potentially provide grounds for an Employment Tribunal claim, including claims for:

  • Sex discrimination. Following a nasty break-up, if a junior female employee is dismissed but the male senior employee is kept in their post, this could amount to sex discrimination.
  • Sexual harassment. This is defined as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. For example, if an employee makes jokes about a colleague’s sex life, indulges in unwelcome touching or sends offensive emails, this could all be considered harassment. To avoid such claims, you must be able to prove that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing harassment in your workplace.
  • Victimisation. If an employee raises a grievance alleging that a colleague has made discriminatory remarks or harassed them about their relationship, and the employer treats the complainant badly for raising said grievance (for example, by denying them training opportunities), this could constitute victimisation. If there is a possible breach of trust and confidence, this could also lead to constructive dismissal claims.

How should employers manage romantic relationships between employees?

Rather than ban workplace relationships altogether, which would be unrealistic and hard to enforce, some employers decide to ask employees to disclose their relationship, especially in cases where the relationship is between a manager and a subordinate.

It is worth reminding employees in relationships with colleagues that they should always behave in a professional manner, paying due consideration to colleagues, customers and clients. For instance, PDAs on the shop floor are to be avoided, and any issues within the relationship should be dealt with in private, not brought into the workplace.

It’s also useful to reiterate that if an employee does become involved in a personal relationship with a colleague, it is their responsibility to deal appropriately with any potential conflicts of interest.

Should we set rules?

You may be attracted to the idea of a ‘love contract’, which are common in the US. These types of contracts formally declare that the relationship is consensual and therefore aim to protect the employer in the event that one of the employees involved in the relationship later claims they have suffered sexual harassment. However, this approach isn’t recommended in the UK, as it could be a breach of human rights.

Instead, the most sensible approach is for employers to impose rules around personal relationships at work, with the aim of ensuring that individual members of staff are not open to allegations of impropriety, bias, abuse of authority or conflict of interest. 

It’s important you have all the appropriate policies in place, including a code of conduct, grievance procedure and rules on harassment. Whist there is no legal requirement for employers to adopt a formal office romance policy, having a clear and reasonable policy on such matters will help employees to understand the potential implications of becoming romantically involved with a colleague, as well as give the employer more scope to take action to resolve any real or perceived issues that might stem from such a relationship.

As with any newly introduced policy, it will be very difficult to apply such a policy retrospectively to established relationships. However, provided it is communicated clearly enough, there is no reason why such a policy can’t be introduced to potentially regulate future relationships without this needing to be formally consulted as a change to terms and conditions (although where formal representation in the form of union recognition or staff forum type arrangements exist, it would be at least a courtesy to brief these bodies and invite comment in advance of any role out).

What about employee-manager relationships?

As a minimum, organisations ought to make provision for what might need to happen where the relationship is between a manager and a direct report. These situations could give rise to concerns of favouritism, whether actual or perceived by other colleagues.

Where a personal relationship exists between employees who are in a line management or supervisory relationship at work, they must not be involved in recruitment, selection, appraisal, promotion or in any other management activity or process involving the other party, as this may result in a conflict of interest. Employers should, for example, consider implementing some mechanism to remove the power to award pay rises or to regulate discipline or performance. 

In such circumstances, the relevant senior manager or director should be informed and, where appropriate, alternative arrangements made.

If that isn’t possible, you may wish to consider transferring one or both employees if there is scope to do so. A policy specifying that this might need to happen would help to defend such action. In these scenarios, care must be taken to justify who is required to move role; a policy that assumes the junior employee will be the one to move might risk a sex or other discrimination claim.

What if they break up?

If a relationship ends between two employees, you may wish to explore the option of moving one of the parties to another team or department to maintain a positive working environment for both parties and those around them.

It’s a good idea to train managers on how best to handle situations like this and ensure they are familiar with all the relevant procedures and codes of conduct.

Office break-ups can also lead to gossip. You may shrug it off as harmless workplace chit-chat, but there can be negative consequences. Not only can it become an unwelcomed distraction and affect employees’ productivity, but workplace gossip can destroy trust, ruin team dynamics and even wreck careers.

Worse, if the relationship breaks down acrimoniously, it can lead to a very awkward and uncomfortable working environment for everyone concerned. 

Your office romance policy might, therefore, want to mention the duty of those involved in the relationship to leave domestic issues at home and stress the need for professionalism at all times, even – and perhaps especially – in the event of a failing relationship.

Can we ban workplace relationships?

The idea of a messy break-up may be enough to make employers want to outlaw workplace relationships altogether. However, a total ban would probably be unreasonable in most settings. 

After all, we often spend more time with our colleagues than our family or partner, so it’s only natural that some people meet and develop relationships through work. Attempting to prevent this entirely would be impractical. Not only that, but banning workplace relationships may also make people more secretive, and therefore make it harder for employers to ‘regulate’ these relationships and manage any issues that might arise.

Instead, employers should assess the likely implications of any romantic relationships according to the nature of their business and staffing structure and make the necessary provisions.

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Dealing with an office romance or its aftermath?

As an employer, you will want to respect an employee’s private life whilst also protecting your business interests. WorkNest’s Employment Law and HR specialists can help you to strike the right balance.

Whether you’re just discovering a relationship between members of your team or dealing with the fallout, our experts can advise on the appropriate and fair course of action and help you to develop the policies within your Employee Handbook to proactively reduce the risk of claims, disputes and disruption.

For support, get in touch on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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