Can you ban workplace romances?

When it comes to workplace romances, many employers don’t know what to do. It’s unlikely to be fair to ban them completely, but there are still some circumstances where workplace relationships can cross the line.


Love is in the air

According to research conducted by Totaljobs, being wooed at work is the most popular way to meet partners – more so than online dating, friends, nights out, and the rest of it.

But although one third of those surveyed said they’d stay well clear of workplace romances because the two just don’t mix, two in three said they certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

And, of those that have or are dating a co-worker, the vast majority (76%) said they’d keep it on the downlow, compared to the mere 3% who said they’d go straight to HR.


Blocking any budding romances

While it’s likely to be a step too far to ban relationships completely, as this would be too great an interference into employees’ private lives, if an employer feels strongly about workplace romances, they can put specific policies in place to set out their stance. Within your policy, you could include things like:

  • Whether or not confidential disclosure of the romance is required and, if so, who to.  However, it should be considered whether this is always needed or more reasonably, whether disclosure is required where there’s a conflict of interest, for example, the relationship involves senior and more junior colleagues 
  • If disclosure is required and, it’s very difficult to put an exact timeframe on when it should be brought to your attention though
  • The ground rules and expected standard of conduct in work if colleagues enter a romantic relationship, including any “red lines”. This would include behaving professionally in work at all times, including if the relationship sours
  • A reminder that pursuing an unwanted relationship or inappropriate behaviour towards a colleague could be deemed to be sexual harassment
  • Such a policy should carefully balance between the business needs and the right of employees to have a private life

If you’re serious about enforcing your policy, it’s important that you ensure everyone has read, understood, and signed it.

An unbreakable bond

If employees go against your policy and you want to take action, you must consider if you are being consistent. If you’re not, you run the risk of facing allegations of discrimination.

For example, two single employees (one senior and on junior) start dating but don’t tell you. It then comes to your attention, and you let it slide. A few weeks later, a similar situation comes to light, but this time it’s a single employee dating a married employee, and you go down the disciplinary route. The latter could argue discrimination against a protected characteristic; their marital status.

Cause for concern?

Workplace dynamics

According to the research, more than one in three (35%) employees think that breaking up with a colleague would negatively affect workplace dynamics – something no business’ morale wants or needs.

If you feel like a failed relationship is starting to take its toll on your team’s atmosphere, we’d recommend pulling the employees in question separately to one side for an informal chat, letting them know how their break-up is impacting the wider team, and reminding them how they’re expected to behave at work – regardless of their relationship status.

Sex discrimination

If two employees enter into a relationship, break-up, and then one party is treated differently and less favourably, or if the treatment is in response to them rejecting advances, this is treated as sex discrimination (or, in some circumstances, sexual orientation discrimination or sexual harassment).

Some examples of different and less favourable treatment include unjustified disciplinary action, dismissals, performance management, assigning the employee all the worst jobs, badmouthing or gossiping, or giving them the cold shoulder.

Although this is more likely to be the case when there’s a difference in seniority as managers will likely have more power to make a subordinate’s life difficult, it can happen with employees who’re on the same level, too.

And lastly, even if the treatment doesn’t result in a discrimination claim, it could still easily lead to a grievance or other difficulties in the day-to-day working relationship.

Retention rates

Furthermore, with 14% of workers saying they’d quit their job because of a break-up, it’s not great news for your retention rates either.

Admittedly, there’s little you can do to stop an employee leaving under these circumstances, but taking steps to help try and ease a break-up may help retain valued employees.

It’s a love-hate relationship

In the same study, it was uncovered that happy co-working couples did experience some less-than-lovely side effects because of their relationship too.

Three in 10 said they felt judged by their colleagues, more than half (51%) felt that office gossip added pressure to their relationship, a quarter said they experienced jealousy, one in six said people made fun of them, and 11% disclosed they felt discriminated against.

Not sure where you stand?

When it comes to workplace romances and what to do, it can be easy to get yourself into a tizzy – and that’s where we come in. Whether it’s help putting policies together, negotiating your way through a fair disciplinary process or handling allegations of discrimination – and everything else in between, we’ve got your back.

If you’re not yet a Citation client, you can get in touch with the team on 0345 844 1111 or via our Contact Us page. And if you’re already part of the team, remember, we’re available 24/7 with our advice line.

*According to research conducted by Totaljobs on 5,795 workers in February 2018.

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