How can employers best manage intimate relationships at work?

As employees continue to return to the office, Oliver McCann discusses how employers can address personal relationships in the workplace

Getty Images/Ezra Bailey

With the post-lockdown recruitment drive ramping up, new starters and returning employees are once again spending more time in the workplace. Naturally, with colleagues spending more time together, romantic relationships are more likely to happen. 

Why should romantic workplace relationships matter?

Blooming love can give a vibe of energy and happiness which spreads across the team, subject to being professional, of course. But when left unaddressed, these kinds of relationships can create problems such as conflicts of interest, bias and unprofessional behaviour. Broken-down relationships could easily lead to potential distractions, office gossip and impacted morale. 

So, how does an employer manage this delicate issue? There is no hard and fast rule, and each employer will select what is best for them by weighing the risks against their desire to empower and avoid a rule-driven workplace.

Options available to employers

Employers who prefer to empower staff as opposed to being prescriptive by formal policies and procedures may simply seek to rely on their company values and normal professional standards. If breached, the employer can step in and address the issue through the usual method under their disciplinary policies and procedures.

Legally, the risk here is an inability to demonstrate, if required, that the employee clearly understood the expected boundaries and standards of acceptable behaviour. This could impact an employer’s ability to successfully defend a claim if an employee was ultimately dismissed.

There are some organisations that enforce anti-fraternising policies, whereby senior and junior employees are prohibited from dating altogether, or in some cases, at all levels. Although this route may safeguard an employer from any future prospective claims, the reasonableness of such a policy is difficult to enforce and may be considered dictatorial and infringing on a person’s private life and freedom of choice. 

In the realms of employment law, the employer may find it difficult to justify their decision and could inadvertently expose themselves to claims for unfair dismissal and/ or discrimination. Given its inflexibility, these policies could breed mistrust and encourage secretiveness, eventually resulting in the loss of top talent within the business.

From one extreme to another, the middle ground is to put in place policies that are bespoke to your workplace, through open dialogue with staff. This option is ideal for employers seeking to strike a balance between respecting their employees and encouraging openness in the workplace while protecting its commercial interest. 

Employers may introduce a ‘love contract’; a document that is signed by employees confirming that they are in a consensual relationship and acknowledging the relevant policies and standard of behaviour expected of them. While the enforceability of the contract is legally uncertain, it does provide an employer with the peace of mind that their employees have been notified of, acknowledged and accepted the standards expected of them, and could in some way support an employer if a difficult decision had to be made. 

Ideally, any intimate relationship policies should outline the key guidance on what is expected from employees in relationships, including how and when they should declare their relationship and what their expected professional behaviours are. It should also address how they can avoid conflicts of interest and unfair bias. Where the potential conflicts of interest are too great, it can outline the approach that the employer may take, including potential termination of employment of one of the couple. 

In summary, irrespective of the size of the business, intimate relationships at work will always happen and will also always present some risk. It is highly recommended for employers to assess their business and put in place appropriate measures to better protect themselves. 

Oliver McCann is an employment and HR partner at Napthens