HR on Valentine’s Day: flirting over holiday forms and fallout from cross-department affairs

People professionals share their experiences and employment lawyers advise how best to handle workplace romances

Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Couples who famously work together – take for example Ruth Langsford and Eamonn Holmes, Beyonce and Jay-Z and of course Michelle and Barack Obama – are broadly welcomed by most. 

But when this dynamic plays out in a typical workplace — and with the #metoo movement still ever-present in people’s minds — it can be a logistical headache for employers, especially when it comes to the HR and legal implications if the relationship breaks down. 

And recent data from law firm Wright Hassall shows office romances are more common than you might think, as a quarter (25 per cent) of 2,000 respondents admitted to having a “romantic encounter” with a colleague. Additionally, 13 per cent said they had an affair with someone they work with. 

Rachel Mathieson, senior associate in the employment department at Bates Wells, reminds professionals that while there are no “strict” legal rules that prevent relationships at work, they’re not always received well by employers – and policies are often put in place to reduce the legal ramifications.

“Relationships at work can give rise to legal and practical issues for employers and therefore many seek to regulate relationships in the workplace by creating clear policies,” says Mathieson. “These will typically make clear expected standards of behaviour in the workplace and also make clear when disclosure of a workplace relationship is required – for example between a supervisor and their direct report.” 

The taboo subject of the office romance – and the US trend of ‘love contracts’ whereby workplace couples would agree, in writing, to how they will behave – notably came to a head in 2019 when former McDonald's chief executive Steve Easterbrook was fired for violating corporate policies, designed to stop senior employees having relationships with subordinates. 

But are workplace romances really that common, and troublesome? In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, People Management asks HR professionals to share their experiences. 

‘Four days of lost work and crying staff’ on Valentine’s Day

Laura Rennie, managing director and founder at Arena HR, says that one of the “worst work romances” she was tasked with handling, consisted of an affair between four unsuspecting work colleagues.

“When the woman, known as S, wouldn’t leave her long term boyfriend for her new lover, known as J, things got a bit more complex,” says Rennie.  

“J decided to send indecent pictures to S’s boyfriend, then [in retaliation] S sent indecent pictures of J to his long term girlfriend. It was a whole mess, made worse because all four people were working in the same company, split over two different departments.” 

Rennie explains that a disciplinary investigation was instigated as the allegations involved inappropriate use of business time and equipment. While she couldn’t give away too much, Rennie says that after a “very detailed, complex and quite shocking investigation”, S resigned from the company and entered into a long term relationship with J. 

The aftermath of this was a refresh of training for HR which “covered the code of conduct and standards, expectations and inter-department communications and relationships”.

What’s worse is Rennie reveals this all happened around Valentine’s Day, and resulted in at least “four days of lost work and crying staff”.  

‘We flirted over holiday forms’

But it isn’t all doom and gloom for HR dealing with office romances. Lianne Baker, head of people at Enfuse Group, says that she doesn’t have “any bad experiences, only good ones”, as she met her husband at work. 

“We flirted over holiday forms,” she confesses, as she worked in HR and her husband worked in the digital media department of a TV production company. She assures it was actually “quite common” in the sector as there were “lots of young, single people” spending long hours together. 

“I didn't officially tell my boss, because people just knew, but it was never really an issue. I just didn't write his salary increase letters,” she adds. The company was very supportive, as theirs was the eleventh marriage of colleagues in the company, Baker says. 

A number of years on and Baker is still working with her husband, at a new company.

Baker has put a policy in place at Enfuse, but that only asks that people are “upfront about [any relationship] and considerate about how it may impact colleagues and clients”. The organisation may need to move people around to “avoid having line management issues”, she adds.

The office affair that everyone knew about…

In a similar vein, Gary Cookson, director at Epic HR, also works with his wife, but he explains that they were already married before they started working together. 

“That tends to work well in most situations except when we have, like any couple will, disagreements about family stuff,” he says. “That spills into the working relationship and affects what work gets done. There's no policy to deal with that except being empathetic, human and willing to compromise and apologise.” 

But, Cookson has also had to deal with an explosive office romance: “I once had a situation where two married employees were having an affair with each other and everyone knew, except their respective spouses.” 

The secret came out and Cookson says there were “fireworks all round” and the affair stopped, but as a result they then “despised each other and actively tried to make life difficult for each other”. This then became a disciplinary matter which saw Cookson don his “mediator's hat and deal with the situation”. 

“But the emotion in the relationship was too strong to allow mediation to work, and in the end a protected conversation was had with one of them, who then left the organisation.” 

The legal side of love 

Relationships at work can be a “tricky” subject, according to Helen Beech, partner at Clarkslegal, to set “ground rules” – which could avoid tribunal claims. 

Specific claims that can arise from an office romance

  • Harassment, bullying and victimisation: If the office romance becomes gossip it can create a toxic culture, which Beech says is “simply asking for a harassment or bullying claim”. If a relationship ends badly the risk of harassment or victimisation is “real”.

  • Unfairness and/or discrimination: While handling it on a case-by-case basis is often the only option, it can “lead to allegations of unfairness or even discrimination, if inconsistent treatment creeps in”, says Alexandra Mizzi, legal director at Howard Kennedy LLP. 

  • Unfair dismissal: Mizzi adds that an absolute prohibition on relationships is “likely to be unreasonable” and any dismissals for a breach of that rule are “likely to be unfair unless there are very clear justifications in a particular workplace environment”.   

  • Sexual harassment: These claims are related to “unwanted advances” at work, and commonly “involve a senior and junior employee”, says Sarah Williams partner, employment law at Taylors Solicitors. Often the junior feels “unable to turn down such advances, for fear of damage to their careers”.

  • Favouritism: Williams says this is “key problem”, especially if it involves a senior and junior employee “who is helped up the career ladder too quickly, or is allowed to finish work early, or is the beneficiary of an unexpected pay rise, which may not have been earned”.

But Williams points out that occasionally, and as evidenced by Baker and Cookson, true love sometimes wins. 

“When this happens, if the relationship is managed carefully, then true love can be inspiring…and to the benefit of the business,” she says. 

Read more about what HR should consider when it comes to workplace romances here.