It is impossible to go past a card shop, jewellery shop or supermarket at the moment without being overwhelmed by red hearts and other romantic symbols. As Valentine’s Day approaches we are all expected to embrace the commercialism of love.
However rather than embracing love in a commercial setting the key concern (all year round) for most employers is to avoid any litigation that may arise due to workplace romances.
Romance at work remains a difficult subject for employers to grapple with. The risk involved in such relationships has led to a rise in UK employers implementing more traditionally continental and US style dating policies and love contracts. A recent survey by Monster.co.uk found that one in five UK Companies now have a dating policy, whilst a further 25 percent are considering implementing one.
A dating policy is intended to lay down clear guidelines about how dating colleagues should behave in the workplace or indeed whether colleagues are allowed to date at all.
A love contract is an agreement between the two romantically involved colleagues that confirms that their relationship is consensual.
Such measures are often viewed as unnecessary and/or an intrusion into private lives. They do not sit happily with the usual preference to keep professional and private lives separate, but are they a necessary evil in modern workplaces?
The purpose of both documents is clear: to limit the liability an employer may have for sexual harassment claims and/or other claims that may arise out of the workplace romances.
Such liability may arise both during the currency of any relationship or when the relationship comes to an end.
Whilst many UK employers may initially find these documents culturally jarring, there is nonetheless sound legal sense in issuing guidance about workplace romances in order to limit and govern:
- Any suggested abuse of power, for example what happens if a manager is romantically involved with a member of his/her direct reports? Should he/she authorise pay rises, bonuses or other employment arrangements for the individual he/she is romantically involved with?
- Confidentiality. How is so-called “pillow talk” to be addressed?
- Retaliation. An employer could be exposed to claims of unfair dismissal and/or constructive dismissal if a jilted lover in a position of power took revenge by terminating the employment of their previous partner or taking some other career limiting step against that individual.
- Claims of sexual harassment. When a relationship ends there is the potential for one party to claim that they were or are being sexually harassed. This may lead to exposure for an employer on the basis of vicarious liability (i.e. by making an employer liable for the wrongs committed by an employee where there is sufficient connection with the employment). Such liability can arise despite the fact the employer itself has committed no wrong.
However before implementing any dating policy employers should seriously consider what they are trying to achieve and the culture of their particular workforce.
Simply banning workplace romances is likely to be unworkable and counterproductive – if statistics are to be believed a third of us meet our life partners through work. If you have two key employees who become romantically involved such a policy can only result in you losing a valued member of staff. An all out ban is also likely to mean that workplace romances are kept hidden which may increase the risks identified above.
There isn’t a one size fits all approach to dating policies but, as a minimum, employers should consider introducing a workable policy that acknowledges that workplace romance may happen from time to time but sets out clear expectations of professionalism when they do occur and explains clearly the consequences where those expectations are not met.
For further information or to discuss the issues raised, please get in touch.
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