After a few flirty exchanges over email, Bridget Jones ends up in a relationship with her boss, Daniel Cleaver. But when the fling goes south – as a result of Cleaver sleeping with another colleague – Jones feels the need to leave her job. So was Cleaver risking a sexual harassment case? And what can companies do from a legal perspective if an office romance goes wrong?
This scenario is not unusual, as when people spend many hours together at work romance is bound to blossom, says Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law. To avoid complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination, Lewis suggests “it is sensible to have, train on and enforce clear policies that emphasise zero tolerance towards this type of treatment in the office”.
In the case of a romantic relationship between co-workers, “both need to be reminded informally of the zero tolerance of anything that might amount to harassment or discrimination”.
Cleaver’s behaviour towards Jones, and indeed other female employees, could well lead to a tribunal, according to Lewis. But it entirely depends on “how the facts play out”. “To succeed in a claim of harassment, a claimant will need the employment tribunal to find that the conduct complained of was unwanted. If Jones or her colleagues responded in kind to the romantic advances of Cleaver, that may be a challenge,” says Lewis.
Ultimately, prevention is the best cure, Lewis advises. He adds that if matters have got out of hand “a negotiated deal under a signed settlement agreement may be the only sensible option for the company”.