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Office romances - the legal position

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Whilst exploring the legal issues surrounding intimate relationships between employees of the same company may seem somewhat unromantic, the truth is that such relationships can lead to problems that employers need to be aware of, and put themselves in the best possible position to head-off at an early stage.

If a relationship is between two employees who are both at the same or similar level within a company and who work in entirely different areas where one has no influence over the other, you might think there would be no problem. But what if a relationship turns sour and leads to tensions in the office? Or what if a relationship is between a manager and a more junior employee and that junior employee starts being treated more favourably?

There are no laws in the UK that deal explicitly with office romances. However, there are several laws that might become relevant when it comes to that particular subject, including harassment and discrimination legislation, breach of contract and unfair dismissal.

Given that banning office romances altogether is probably unrealistic both legally and practically, in order to avoid such issues, employers can implement and maintain policies dealing with such situations. Such policies may, for example, require staff (especially more senior members of staff) to declare any conflicts of interest they have or that may arise and ensuring that confidentiality provisions are up to date and cover such issues. A breach of such policies by an employee may then constitute a disciplinary offence.

Conflicts of interest can take many different forms, the most obvious one being when a manager, who is in a relationship with a junior employee who is part of his or her team, is considering the merits of the members of his or her team when it comes to issues such as bonuses, pay reviews or redundancies. Even if that junior employee is a high performing employee who may have earned a bonus or pay rise on merit, the situation still leaves itself open to suspicion on the part of other member of the team, who may suspect that the relationship has unfairly influenced such decisions so it can be a question of perception as much as anything else.

Employers can also provide training to its employees on these issues and training can, and should be given to those in management positions on how to deal with issues relating to office romances such as conflicts of interest, inappropriate behaviour and, ultimately, employment tribunal claims.

The absence of any specific laws and the delicacy of such situations can often make them difficult for employers to handle. However, employers can still do all they can to ensure that they have adequate procedures in place to deal with such issues and the potential ramifications of them. If you are an employer requiring advice on how to deal with such issues, don’t hesitate to contact a member of our Employment team.