A Legal Guide to Workplace Relationships

A Legal Guide to Workplace Relationships
We are not currently offering Employment advice services. The following is for informational purposes only.

With many hours often spent with co-workers, it’s common for friendships and even workplace relationships to form.

According to a survey, a majority of employees have experienced some form of office romance, with 58% engaging in relationships with their colleagues. Furthermore, among those above the age of 50, as many as 72% have had romantic entanglements with their coworkers.

Although office romances are not uncommon, it is crucial to adhere to certain guidelines to ensure the smooth progression of the relationship and to importantly safeguard the careers of those involved.

Employers Guide to Workplace Relationships:

Unfortunately, increasing numbers of news stories have been emerging of situations where employers tactically overlook the behaviour of key members of staff that they would not tolerate in others. Often complaints are discreetly brushed under the carpet. As a result, victims leave the business (sometimes with a pay-out) and nothing internally changes.

Nevertheless, when a narrative emerges, companies can face significant harm to their reputations, resulting in damage that extends beyond mere credibility but can also impact their brand.

Therefore, it’s vital that employers manage the risk of workplace relationships, distinguishing what is and is not acceptable.

Create or Review Company Policies on Workplace Relationships

In most cases, an employer cannot ban their staff from having relationships with a colleague. Banning these relationships will usually be considered an unjustified interference with an employee’s right to private life. However, most employers will still have policies that staff must adhere to if involved in workplace relationships. However, these policies must still be reasonable.

A workplace policy on relationships must clearly outline when an employee needs to tell the company about their relationship and who they must inform. In most cases, this will be when an employee is in a relationship with a supervisor, when they are in the same department or if they are in a relationship with a client, supplier, or customer. Most policies will also include family relationships too, for example, your parent being your line manager.

In addition, the policy should cover what the business will do with the information and why it is needed. For example, the company may want to reallocate your line manager, move both parties onto different teams (with consent), or change work hours (with consent) all in an effort to make sure the relationship will not impact the employee’s work.

Relationships with a Conflict of Power

To make sure you are protecting your business interests, while also allowing your employees to date who they wish, it’s important to have a fair policy on workplace relationships in place. Most workplace relationship policies highlight any relationships where one party hold more workplace authority than the other. Ensuring you have the correct policies for these types of relationships is especially important for the following reasons:

  • There can be a conflict of interest between the senior party’s position of authority and their workplace duties. For example, the senior party may show bias towards an employee that they are in a relationship. Even unintentionally, this bias could impact their partner’s pay, bonuses and provide other perks and benefits.
  • Workplace relationships can also cause hostility in the wider team. This can happen if other co-workers believe a colleague is getting ‘special treatment’ by engaging in a relationship with someone higher in the company.
  • Confidential information may be shared between the couple.
  • If the relationship ends it could hurt working relationships and expose the business to discrimination claims.

Ensuring the Relationship Was Entered Freely

It’s important to ensure the relationship was entered freely by both parties. This might not always be the case in relationships with larger age gaps, large status gaps or if one party is venerable in some manner. For example, if a manager is dating their employee, there is a risk that the employee cannot leave the relationship or be forced into the relationship with the threat of being fired.

There is also the risk that the employee may feel like they cannot complain if they are unhappy with the relationship in fear or being fired or not believed. It can be difficult for an employer to spot this happening, but it is vital to make sure you are protecting your employees against this. By encouraging a workplace culture where anyone can raise concerns safely, you can prevent these dangerous relationships. It’s important to make sure your employees feel listened to, safe and supported.

Encouraging a ‘Speak Out’ Culture

By promoting a culture where employees can speak out, many workplace issues can be resolved in their earlier stages. However, giving employees the encouragement to speak out and report any issues only works if the employee feels they can do so without fear of themselves suffering consequences for voicing their issues. It’s important as a manager or business owner to protect your employees from repercussions from speaking out, especially against those in a position of power.

Additionally, employees can feel like they cannot voice their concerns. This could be out of fear that nothing will be done about it the concerns so the employee does not pursue it. Therefore, it’s essential for a manager or business owner to set an example, making sure the employees’ concerns are heard and acted on accordingly.

Provide Staff with Training

With the introduction of new policies, staff must be trained appropriately. Therefore, staff can promote the new policy to the rest of the employees. It’s important that staff know who they can speak to if they want to raise any concerns.

Employees Guide to Workplace Relationships:

Although new office romances can be exciting, it’s important to not overlook important considerations. Not only will forward planning prevent you from breaking any company policies but can help you remain professional in the workplace. 

Review the Company Policy on Workplace Relationships

Before entering a relationship with another employee it’s important that you have read your workplace’s company policy about office dating. Most companies will have some restrictions.

41% of employees have stated they are unaware of their company’s workplace relationships policy. Instead, employees can enter relationships unaware that they are breaking company policy. If you discover you are breaking the policy after entering a relationship, it’s best to tell whoever the company policy advises you to.

Legally, dating a co-worker is not unlawful if laws such as the law on sexual harassment in the office or discrimination in the office are not broken in the process.

Be Aware of the Risks

When entering a relationship with a co-worker it’s important to assess the risks. If the relationship does not work out, it can lead to hostile working environments and discomfort at work. For example, there is a risk that your partner can favour you in the workplace and there is also the risk that after breaking up one party may face discrimination, being less likely to take bonuses or receive perks. 

In both cases, office relationships can cause an unfair conflict of interest, putting at risk the reputation of either employee’s professionalism.

Although most couples head into a relationship optimistically, these risks must be addressed.

Disclose the Relationship

64% of employees keep their relationship a secret while only 16% feel comfortable sharing information with co-workers. Often the workplace policy will state if you need to disclose your relationship. However, whether it states to or not, it’s often recommended to disclose the information to your superior. Doing so can help avoid rumours in the office.

Informing Your Employer of a Breakup

Just as you usually need to inform your employer of your relationship, it’s also important to inform your employer if the relationship ends.

Never Commit Sexual Harassment

When entering a workplace relationship, it is vital that the relationship should be consensual. If consent is not included in the relationship, this counts as sexual harassment. You should not have to tolerate any unlawful acts in the workplace. If you feel safe to do so, it’s vital to inform a supervisor. If you find yourself a victim of sexual harassment, our team of employment solicitors can help you.

Read more above in the section ‘Ensuring the Relationship Was Entered Freely’.

Don’t Show Public Displays of Affection

While at work you should avoid public displays of affection. This includes pet names, kissing, holding hands etc. Even if these come from a place of good intentions, you should not be displaying these actions in the workplace.

Treating all your colleagues the same removes impressions of favouritism. Additionally avoiding PDA shows that you are professional and won’t let your relationship tangle with work.

Don’t Date Subordinates or Superiors

When contemplating a romantic relationship with a colleague, it is crucial to carefully consider the dynamics of office politics and hierarchical structures. It is advisable to steer clear of romantic involvement with individuals who hold subordinate or superior positions.

Furthermore, assessing the performance of someone you are romantically involved with can prove challenging objectively. For instance, if you are dating your superior, it may give rise to perceptions of favouritism and an unfair advantage in terms of promotions. Therefore, it is still wise to avoid such relationships, even if these relationships are permitted by your company. Additionally, it’s advised to avoid these relationships if you are confident in your ability to maintain professionalism.

Engaging romantically with subordinates or superiors has the potential to tarnish your reputation. Additionally, it can have detrimental effects on your career trajectory. Therefore, it’s advised that employees take caution before entering into relationships with an imbalance of seniority.

Fundamentally, as long as you ensure:

  • you are following your workplace policies
  • you have informed the necessary management
  • you remain professional in the workplace
  • your relationship is consensual
  • there is no favouritism or discrimination

then your workplace relationship should not cause detriment to your proffesional reputation or the reputation of your company.

Get in Touch with Cartwright King’s Employment Team

Although new relationships are exciting, there is a lot to consider before entering a workplace relationship. It’s vital to review office polices and consider your and the company’s reputation. To minimise any issues and ensure you are keeping within company guidelines you must know your entitlements.

If you have any questions about workplace relationships and office policies, our employment solicitors can help you. Additionally, if you are a victim of workplace harassment or discrimination our team can help you with the legal support you may need. Get in contact here for more information or to make an appointment.

Legal Disclaimer.

All advice is correct at time of publication.