Although the number of couples who meet at work appears to be on the decline, it is inevitable that colleagues who spend so much time together will sometimes become romantically involved. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, it’s an opportune time to examine some of the HR challenges posed by relationships in the workplace.
- Organisational risks
- The main employment law risk associated with personal relationships at work is the prospect of harassment or discrimination claims being made when personal relationships deteriorate.
- From a HR practitioner’s perspective, any interference in the personal lives of employees must be weighed against the employees’ right to a private life.
- Does a ‘power differential’ exist?
- One of the offshoots of the #MeToo movement is a greater focus on power dynamics within organisations.
- If a senior member of staff becomes involved with a junior subordinate, there is a risk that the senior member of staff may exploit the ‘power differential’ that exists between the two parties
- Minimising these risks
- So what is the best way to deal with these risks? One option for organisations is to put a policy on personal relationships in place.
- A balanced approach
- Of course, many employees will consider their personal relationships to be a private matter which is none of their employer’s business. A policy on personal relationships acknowledges the employee’s right to a private life and sets out the specific circumstances in which the organisation has the right to protect its interests.
Whilst Valentine’s Day can be seen as an opportunity to celebrate romance or relationships, organisations should bear in mind that staff members sending gifts to each other could potentially be seen as sexual harassment, especially in light of the increasing awareness within this area. Whilst some cards or items may seem harmless, such as a bouquet of flowers or box of chocolates, what could have started out as a good-natured gesture may not be perceived in this way. The danger is that this may give rise to claims of sexual harassment, even when this was not the intention of the sender.
To ensure sexual harassment is not occurring in the workplace, on Valentine’s Day or at any other time, organisations should take steps to increase awareness and deter staff. One of the most effective deterrents will be having a clear, well-drafted anti-harassment policy which outlines the rules on acceptable, and unacceptable, conduct within the workplace.
On the day itself, a gentle reminder to employees about what is acceptable in the workplace can be an effective way of reducing the risk of sexual harassment taking place. Employees can also be told to exchange Valentine’s Day cards and gifts outside the workplace during personal time rather than at work.