Shades of grey: work relationships don’t have to end in tears

Employers often discourage office liaisons, but with the right approach such situations need not become a drama.

It is a fact of life that many of us meet our future partners at work. The average person spends about 100,000 hours at work during their lifetime and this makes finding love at work all the more likely.

Despite their prevalence — after all most of us knows someone who met their life partner at work — employers often discourage workplace relationships. This is because of the issues and liabilities that can arise, particularly if the relationship fails.

Some employers have a specific policy concerning workplace relationships and, as with other policies, it is important to make sure that staff are aware of it. For businesses where workplace relationships are considered a bigger risk, or where there is a history of litigation linked to them, employers could even choose to ban such relationships altogether.

Workers who get involved in a relationship with a colleague need to understand that there are likely to be repercussions. They should start by checking if any policy exists, if they don’t already know. If there isn’t one, then they should be upfront with their employer about the relationship as this could help to avoid potential issues, misunderstandings and workplace disputes further down the line.

One of the main risks for the employer is breach of confidentiality. This can occur if the couple share interdepartmental information inappropriately or in situations where one individual is in a greater position of power (such as a manager) and is therefore privy to more sensitive business information.

Breaches of confidentiality could lead to disciplinary proceedings and potential dismissal under the terms of most employment contracts. Where there is a significant difference in employment status, there is also a risk that the relationship could lead to allegations of harassment or bullying too.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele, a PA at a publishing company, is told by her boss and commissioning editor, Jack Hyde, that she must sleep with him when he returns from a business trip. It is easy to understand how an employee in this kind of position could feel bullied into getting involved in a sexual relationship against their will.

Employers should consider the different scenarios that could pose a risk in the future — if one partner exits the business and takes a job with a competitor, for example. A detailed risk assessment should be carried out, particularly if a senior level employee is involved, because of the increased risks relating to confidentiality.

Other management issues must also be tackled. Some employers may prefer not to have the couple working within the same team because of the tensions and allegations of favouritism that could create. It may also be necessary to consider if any special arrangements will be necessary when the couple take holiday together.

A recent tribunal case involving a former employee at Port Vale Football Club involved a successful claim of sexual discrimination against the club. The claimant had been sacked for allegedly having a workplace relationship with a player on the grounds that the club had a policy in place banning such relationships.

However, at tribunal, she successfully argued that her dismissal was unfair and that she had been discriminated against because no action had been taken against the player that she had allegedly had a relationship with. She had effectively been singled out.

Imposing a ban on workplace relationships is a radical decision for an employer to take and isn’t necessarily the best option for every business.

It could be counterproductive to impose a ban on all working relationships as the employer could be forced into a situation where they have to dismiss both parties regardless of their role or seniority, or risk a discrimination claim if they don’t. This could have significant implications for the business.

There are other ways to deal with workplace relationships. Even without a policy, there is no reason why a separate agreement can’t be put in place. Such agreements should ensure that the employees who are having the relationship are reminded of any equal opportunities and/or bullying and harassment policies. They can then continue their relationship without it disrupting workplace productivity and affecting the wider business.

Top tips for employers:

• Carry out a risk assessment to identify potential issues and liabilities.

• Make all staff aware of the consequences should they get involved in a workplace relationship.

• If there is a policy in place for workplace relationships, make sure it is communicated regularly and be prepared to enforce it.

• Manage with care; the recent case at Port Vale FC shows how employers can get caught out if workplace relationships are mismanaged.

Top tips for employees:

• Check if there is a policy in place on workplace relationships before disclosing your relationship.

• If there isn’t a policy, it is best to be open and honest about it and to tell your employer about the relationship at an early stage.

• Reassure your employer that you understand the potential repercussions and that you are familiar with any relevant policies such as equal opportunities and/or bullying and harassment.

• Communicate your willingness to negotiate about any practical, management issues that could arise — such as problems caused by taking holiday together.