How should you handle an office romance?

And what should you be wary of?

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Friday, Feb 04, 2022

When two employees engage in a romantic relationship of any kind, it's a workplace affair. This includes extramarital affairs in the workplace.

A little passion at work can have a great effect on those involved. Their communication skills, energy levels, and desire to be at work can all increase. All of these factors can lead to better teamwork and high performance.

The consequences of workplace affairs

But we're not in a fairy tale, and some office romances turn sour.

An office relationship comes with certain possible problems, such as:

  • Complaints of favouritism.
  • Spreading of rumours.
  • Workplace gossip.
  • Disruption to other staff.
  • Sexual harassment claims.
  • Time wasting.

So here's our guide to help you handle a workplace romance.

How frequent are work affairs?

Some workplace studies suggest that around 65% of office workers claim they've had at least one inter-office relationship.

Based on this high percentage, there's a good chance that two of your employees will find themselves caught up in romance.

As an employer, what should you do about it? Should you have concerns? And should you speak to the staff members involved?

We understand that you want to protect your business—and the rest of your employees—from any difficulties that a work affair might cause, whether it becomes a long-term commitment or is just a brief romance.

What does employment law tell us about affairs at work?

Are you thinking that a blanket ban on office affairs would be the best solution? Well, you do have this right.

Sadly, you're more likely to breach the human rights of your staff under the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 than you are to prevent them from having an affair at work.

Under the HRA 1998, your employees have a right to privacy. And, even if you do ban relationships in your workplace, you have no way of stopping two staff members starting a romance without your knowledge.

Instead, how about a policy for relationships in the workplace?

Managing a work relationship with a structured relationships policy is a more open-minded tactic.

In your policy, make it clear that when anyone begins an affair with a colleague, they must abide by these clauses:

  • Employees must tell a member of the management team about the relationship, preferably as soon as it is common knowledge in the workplace.
  • You reserve the right to outline any behaviour that must not occur in the workplace and during work hours.
  • You also reserve the right to relocate an employee to an alternate team or department if the office affair could involve a conflict of interest—for example, if the relationship is between a manager and a junior employee.

When handling any problems that could come up when a senior employee engages in a workplace romance with a junior staff member, clarify in your policy that you will take appropriate action to avoid sex discrimination in your decision-making.

As always with your policies, make sure you include them in your staff handbook and employment contracts. Email staff a new version whenever you revise a policy.

Also in your policy, offer all staff the chance to learn about inter-office relationships through a training session.

In this training, state your policy's clauses, as well as your expectation that all staff stay professional at all times. Lastly, give your staff details about your sexual harassment policy.

Sexual harassment grievances

When work relationships break down, there can be tension between the two employees and unwanted behaviour in the aftermath. This can lead to sexual harassment complaints.

Create a document that explains your sexual harassment policy and the procedures you will follow when investigating a grievance. As well as wanting to protect your business and your other employees, it's still your duty to take all steps to prevent any sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment might take the form of:

  • Repeated text messages, letters, or emails.
  • Unwanted physical contact.
  • Malicious rumours.
  • Displaying offensive and/or explicit materials such as videos, photos, or writings.

It's also sexual harassment to base work-related decisions on whether or not someone accepts a sexual advance. For example, deciding to hire, dismiss, or promote someone.

Vulnerable staff

It's your duty to step in if you know of an emotional affair at work involving an employee who is, in some way, vulnerable.

He or she might be underage or just out of school, or they might have a mental health condition. Whatever the reason, you must take responsibility.

You want to avoid time wasting

You may find that the office couple is taking a few extra minutes at lunch to see each other. Or they're spending a bit too long in the kitchen making their mid-morning brews when they should be working. Whatever the cause, lost time will hurt your business and it'll mean other staff have to pick up the slack.

This will make morale fall in your office.

Have a brief and informal chat with the couple, and point out in a simple way that they need to take more care of their time management. Don't bother with any critical remarks about the relationship, since you're only going to risk making them resent you. Your concern is your business, not their love life.

You may even find that congratulating them on their relationship is an easy root into a positive conversation about how they need to stay professional at work. At the end of this chat, remind them that if they don't follow the rules of your relationships policy, they could face disciplinary action.

Need help?

To sum up, romance at work is a tricky affair. But you're in luck.

BrightHR offers expert employment law advice free to its customers.

Sign up for your free demo of BrightHR today and let BrightAdvice help you manage your workplace relationships.

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