What is the legality of romance in the workplace?

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Kate Palmer of Peninsula looks at the legality of and challenges presented by office romances.

Office Romance Legality

Are office romances legal in the UK?

It is almost inevitable, with the number of hours that people spend at work and the social opportunities on offer, that romance will blossom between certain work colleagues. Legally, there are no laws preventing office romances, and it is usually left to employers to determine how they are going to respond to them.

However, because office romances can blur the lines of professionalism at work, some employers may be concerned about the effect that these relationships can have on the workplace. This concern has only been heightened recently in light of the #MeToo movement, in which a significant number of women have come forward claiming to have been sexually harassed within a professional environment.

Should employers ban office romances?

Although it may be tempting for employers to implement a complete office ban on romances, or a ‘love contract’, this rule can be:

  • very unpopular among the workforce
  • highly difficult to enforce
  • potentially breach the human rights of the employees

Therefore, it is advisable for an employer to outline within their company policies what is considered appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

For example, employers can place a requirement upon any individuals entering a relationship to disclose this to their manager. From there, employers can decide if the individuals should work separately to avoid any potential conflicts of interest within ongoing projects or general working duties. This can also help to avoid accusations of preferential treatment from other members of staff if the relationship involves a manager and someone on their team.

Should employers have policies on sexual harassment and discrimination?

When making workplace policies on office romances, employers should consider the implications if the relationship turns sour. This could expose the company to increased liability, with potential accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

It is therefore highly advisable that employers maintain clear policies that outline a zero-tolerance policy to this kind of treatment within the workplace and that both parties to the relationship are reminded of this fact when they disclose it. If either individual is found to be operating in breach of this, employers should process the situation through their usual disciplinary and misconduct procedures.

How can an open culture help employers during office romances?

To help outline the company’s stance on office romances clearly, employers should aim to maintain an open, supportive and approachable culture that actively encourages those considering entering a relationship to come forward. This can be done by discussing the procedure for workplace relationships within inductions, ongoing company training or meetings.

A proactive and robust approach to this may help in discouraging employees from keeping their relationship a secret, meaning that the employer can take steps to counteract any potential issues that could arise at an early stage.

About the author

Kate Palmer is Associate Director of Advisory at global employment law consultancy at Peninsula.

See also

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Ethical veganism gains protection in the workplace

Image: Getty Images

Publication date: 11 February 2020