How to manage close personal relationships at work

From friendships to romantic encounters, interactions between employees can affect their productivity and the company dynamic as a whole, explains legal expert Tahira Patala

Given the amount of time that employees spend with each other in the workplace, it is always a possibility that personal or intimate relationships will develop. Employers need to accept that personal relationships are normal and, in many cases, will not present a problem.

Traditionally, any type of workplace relationship has been frowned upon for several reasons, including causing distractions and interruptions that are detrimental to productivity, and relationships leading to gossip among co-workers. However, research has found that workplace friendships can actually be good for employees and the company. As working hours get longer and people spend more time with colleagues, the line between home and work is thinner than ever. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it is now the opinion that employees are happier when they have friends at work and it is easier to get through the day, which can ultimately increase productivity and reduce staff turnover.

Tips for HR professionals

Employers should ensure that all employees are familiar with the company’s stance on workplace relationships and that managers know how to address issues in one of the following ways:

  • Workplace relationship policy – in light of the potential implications, a well-written and informative ‘personal relationships at work’ policy should be put in place to inform employees of the balance between their right to a private life and the company’s right to protect its interests.

  • Training – consider offering courses for managers and supervisors focusing on romantic relationships between their employees.

  • Grievance and anti-harassment procedures – there can be a thin line between workplace romance and possible sexual harassment, so any inappropriate behaviour or unwanted conduct should not be accepted. This could be a particular concern if a workplace relationship fails. All employees should be made well aware of a company’s sexual harassment policy.

  • Additional guidelines – Employers may want to include a guideline in their policy that requires management to be informed of any close personal relationships between staff so they can review the situation in relation to possible interference with their work. In such circumstances, employers may find it necessary to explore the possibility of one party being moved to a different department or location.

Be aware that dismissing an employee for having a personal relationship at work is likely to be unfair as well as possible discrimination on the grounds of sex. Such situations should always be handled with care and sensitivity in the interests of all concerned, and employers should ensure that any approach or actions are not unfair or discriminatory by avoiding any assumption at the outset that a workplace relationship will be unsatisfactory.

Tahira Patala is a partner at Essential Solicitors and employment law consultant for the ELAS Group