Whilst romance may be in the air this Valentine’s day, in this month’s HR Newsletter, we turn our attention to the often-tricky issue of personal relationships in the workplace.

We look at the difficulties that romantic relationships between colleagues can cause and consider what employers can do in order to mitigate the potential risks to their business.

Mixing work with pleasure: the evidence

A survey by job search engine, Adzuna.co.uk, has shed light on the supposed taboo of workplace relationships in the UK, revealing that 66% of workers in the UK have had a romantic relationship with a colleague and 28% found their current partner at work. The survey indicates that there is a remarkable openness towards workplace romances, which may, of course, be of concern to some employers, given the problems that can arise as a result of work colleagues getting together. Find out more..

Should organisations be policing romance at work?

Whilst love can be a beautiful thing, there are a myriad of problems that can arise for employers when a personal relationship develops between two employees. Potential problems include conduct, or productivity issues, complaints from others about perceived favouritism or victimisation, as well as concerns about possible conflicts of interest. Employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their staff so the biggest worry is that if things go wrong, a sexual harassment claim or other form of complaint may be lodged. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some organisations choose to ban such personal relationships altogether. Find out more..

The importance of supporting staff going through a relationship breakdown

Valentine’s Day can be a painful day for those that have recently divorced or separated and can also cause some singles to feel very lonely. Unfortunately, this can lead to depression or other psychological difficulties which can severely impact a person’s mental and physical health, making it difficult for them to act or work in a manner that accurately reflects them as a person or professional, which can, in turn, have a wider adverse impact on office morale. It’s, therefore, vital to be alert to the signs that an employee may be struggling so you can do everything possible to support them. Find out more..

Taking action when the office romance turns sour

 When office relationships end, they can often cause tension in the office, as well as other management difficulties. To avoid a hostile environment following a breakdown of a personal relationship at work and/or to avoid the risk of this impacting on work productivity and general staff relations employers may decide to take pre-emptive action such as moving one of them to another department or office location. If the situation affects the conduct or performance of those in question, this should be managed and dealt with in the same way as other conduct or performance related matters. Find out more..

When ‘work banter’ becomes sexual harassment

In the context of the #MeToo movement and continued high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment is still a big problem in the workplace, despite the reputational damage that can be caused to businesses.  Even what some may consider ‘harmless work banter’ could amount to harassment or sexual harassment, as highlighted by the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Find out more..


Mixing work with pleasure: the evidence

A survey by job search engine, Adzuna.co.uk, has shed light on the supposed taboo of workplace relationships in the UK, revealing that 66% of workers in the UK have had a romantic relationship with a colleague and 28% found their current partner at work. The survey indicates that there is a remarkable openness towards workplace romances, which may, of course, be of concern to some employers, given the problems that can arise as a result of work colleagues getting together.

The research also reveals that these romances are often related to workplace hierarchy itself, with a third (33%) of work-related fantasies being about someone in a higher position within the company. Surprisingly, 22% of those who have dated somebody in the office did so with their boss. In some cases, they reported that it actually benefited them professionally with 48% of Londoners who dated their boss admitting the romance helped their career.

It’s not all romance and happy endings, however, as the research found that, sadly, matches kindled in the workplace seem to be especially likely to lead towards divorce, with over a fifth (21%) of workplace relationships actually resulting in separation. Sharing a workplace with a loved one also seems to bring significant pressure to the job itself, with a third (33%) of workers leaving a role to avoid a partner post-break-up and 26% admitting they left their job to give their relationship the best chance to succeed. This is not likely to be comforting news to employers, either, suggesting that they may have good reason to be concerned.
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Should organisations be policing romance at work?

Whilst love can be a beautiful thing, there are a myriad of problems that can arise for employers when a personal relationship develops between two employees. Potential problems include conduct, or productivity issues, complaints from others about perceived favouritism or victimisation, as well as concerns about possible conflicts of interest. Employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their staff so the biggest worry is that if things go wrong, a sexual harassment claim or other form of complaint may be lodged by one of both party. As well as taking up a lot of management time, all this, also has a huge potential for reputational damage.

For these reasons, it is, perhaps, understandable that some employers place very restrictive covenants on personal relationships within the workplace and some ban them altogether. However, those of us who are a little more romantic would argue that workplace relationships happen and that you cannot prevent people from falling in love. Rather than impose a complete ban on personal relationships between employees, many employers may decide to adopt appropriate policies and procedures and codes of conduct to help protect themselves and their workforce from the all-too-real risks.

Research reveals that policies surrounding dating in the workplace have become customary in the majority of industries, with only 29% of employees saying that there were no rules against romantic relations with a colleague. However, despite knowing that there are guidelines put in place, 17% of staff had revealed that they didn’t know what the policies were, highlighting the importance of communicating these internal office romance policies to staff, to help stimmy potential conflicts from arising in this first place.

Whether it’s a ‘romance policy’ or some other term, clearly stating the importance of being transparent is key, particularly if there is likely to be a conflict of interest or a perception of favouritism. It may be appropriate, for example, to have a policy that deals with personal relationships within the same office, or department, which could require staff to report such relationships, so that any potential conflict of interest can be identified and addressed.

Codes of Conduct should clearly set out the level of conduct expected from staff, giving examples of the kind of behavior that is and is not acceptable. It should also be made clear that the same expectations apply when employees are representing the company at outside events, or attending work-related events, even when they take place off-site or outside of normal working hours. Employees should be made aware of the employers zero-tolerance stance to sexual harassment and of how allegations of sexual harassment will be dealt with. 
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The importance of supporting staff going through a relationship breakdown

Valentine’s Day can be a painful day for those that have recently divorced or separated and can also cause some singles to feel very lonely. Unfortunately, this can lead to depression or other psychological difficulties which can severely impact a person’s mental and physical health, making it difficult for them to act or work in a manner that accurately reflects them as a person or professional, which can, in turn, have a wider adverse impact on office morale. It’s, therefore, vital to be alert to the signs that an employee may be struggling so that you can ensure that you do everything possible to support them and, in the process, maintain the quality of the workplace environment. 

An employee going through a divorce will, understandably, experience a notable change in mood for a while, but one thing that isn’t so obvious is that an employee divorce can decrease the morale of the entire office. This can occur for several reasons.

It could be that other employees are worried about a colleague experiencing a particularly painful breakup, the employee’s change of mood may make them hostile or unapproachable, or it may be the case that the negativity is making the workplace atmosphere toxic. Regardless, it’s essential to recognise the issue and act accordingly. Sometimes, the employee may require time off work, while in other cases, the offer of additional support from employers can work wonders. Policies and procedures should be in place to support staff wellbeing and to identify and manage stress levels within the workplace, even when work, itself, is not the direct source of an employee’s stress. Actions, such as making emotional counselling available may a good way to assist employees with any feelings of depression and could be included as part of a wellness plan.

When going through something as stressful as divorce it’s also common for individuals to lose their focus. Managers should keep an eye out for workers that seem to be avoiding interaction, or who’s quality of work has dropped, as this may be a sign they are not coping. In such situations, it’s crucial to address the situation as soon as possible. Neglecting to do so or “hoping for the best” could harm the progress of essential projects, impact your business’s reputation and make life more difficult for other members of the team. Yet, it’s also critical to approach this type of situation carefully, as the person in question will be extremely sensitive and under a lot of pressure. The goal is to offer support, not to punish them or give them a warning. Divorce and separation are life-changing, so it’s crucial to reassure your employees that they have the full support of the team and the company. With that said, they also need to be aware that their current standard of work or attitude towards their duties isn’t acceptable.
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 Taking action when the office romance turns sour

 When office relationships end, they can often cause tension in the office, as well as other management difficulties. To avoid a hostile environment following a breakdown of a personal relationship at work and/or to avoid the risk of this impacting on work productivity and general staff relations, employers may decide to take pre-emptive action. It may be worth considering moving one of them to another department or office location, for example. However, where formal allegations have been made, it should not be the person making the allegations who is forced to move, unless they request it, or are agreeable to such a move.

 If the situation affects the conduct or performance of those in question, this should be managed and dealt with in the same way as other conduct or performance related matters. This means adopting a fair and reasonable disciplinary process and dealing with that process in a fair and reasonable way, which therefore, means that the rules must be applied consistently to everyone, including managers. Same-sex couples should not be treated differently to heterosexual couples.

In the not-so-distant past, where a relationship breakdown occurred between a manager and a less senior member of staff, it would have been common for the junior staff member – usually a woman – to be pressured to leave the organisation. Fortunately, those days are gone and it is unlawful for employers to treat men and women differently because of their sex. So, nowadays, if only the junior employee were to be asked to leave, she is likely to have grounds for a sex discrimination claim. 
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When ‘work banter’ becomes sexual harassment

In the context of the #MeToo movement and continued high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment is still a big problem in the workplace, despite the reputational damage that can be caused to businesses. Research shows that 37% of women said they were sexually harassed in the workplace in the last year, 10% said that harassment had led them to leave their employment and 20% said sexual harassment was the norm in their workplace. It seems that, all too often, employers are still preferring to bury their heads in the sand, rather than tackle these issues head on.

There are many workplace situations which could potentially lead to allegations of sexual harassment. For example, an employee may claim that they are being sexually harassed by a colleague who has repeatedly asked them out, despite it being made clear that romance is not an option and that such advances are unwanted. A manager may use their position of power to persuade a junior employee to go on a date in return for a promotion or pay rise. Even what some may consider ‘harmless banter’ could amount to harassment or sexual harassment, as highlighted by the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who recently published new guidance reminding employers that unwanted ‘banter’ in the workplace should not be tolerated. It also emphasises that unwanted behaviour that happens outside of the office, such as in the pub or online, could still be considered as happening in the course of employment.

To address such issues, the EHRC states that employers must adopt a zero-tolerance stance towards sexual harassment, making it clear to employees the kind of behaviour that is and isn’t acceptable and setting out how allegations of sexual harassment will be dealt with. Where allegations of this nature are made by one member of staff against another work colleague, it is vital that the employer actively and visibly pursues their discipline and grievance procedures, undertaking a full investigation in relation to the allegations and, if necessary, applying appropriate disciplinary sanctions to the perpetrator. In this way, employers can begin to create an environment that feels open, safe and accepting to all.

This newsletter was curated by Nicole Squires, MA, Chartered MCIPD, an Executive Consultant at People Based Solutions. People Based Solutions is an HR support company that specialises in supporting small and medium sized businesses meet all of their HR commitments. If you want to know how People Based solutions can help you meet your HR and Employment Law obligations click here for your free HR Health Check. Alternatively, you can call us on 01925 425 857, send an e-mail to enquries@peoplebasedsolutions.co.uk or Click here to visit our website.

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