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Office romance - the employer's view

Peninsula Ireland Employment Law Director Alan Price on how employers can handle office relationships

 Four in 10 people have dated a colleague at some point, according to a 2011 survey

OFFICE relationships can present a minefield within organisations. Employers are likely to fear becoming liable when something goes wrong and, in America, the introduction of ‘Love Contracts’ deals with the potential fallout whilst some UK companies have banned inter-office romances completely.

A 2011 study recorded that 40 per cent of workers have dated a colleague at some point, showing that this area is not so much about banning workplace romance but properly managing it.

It is within an employer’s right to ban office relationships completely, however, this may prove impossible to enforce. Realistically, a ban will not stop employees who want to be in a relationship from doing so secretly and this can lead to gossip and rumours circulating.

It’s important to recognise that office relationships can result in positive outcomes, such as an enhanced morale because employees want to go to work, and an increase in communication, creativity and energy, but employers should be aware of the threats they pose.

Many companies prohibit supervisors from dating direct subordinates whilst allowing relationships between members within the same teams. A senior-junior relationship can result in a loss of productivity and poor performance, due to distractions both mental and emotional, and may lead to others within the team making serious complaints about favouritism.

The risks of this relationship breaking down are quite high to the business because the two individuals will remain within the same senior-junior positions at work and could lead to tense atmospheres and even increase absenteeism due to the emotional strain of continuing in this employment relationship.

Employers may believe that allowing two senior managers to enter in to a relationship is unlikely to create any friction because the individuals are employed at the same job level in the business.

However, if they do break up, this close working relationship may lead to more potential problems than two workers in differing positions; not only the tense, uncomfortable atmosphere which many break-ups produce but also the issue that these employees were recruited as managers for a reason and if one of them leaves because of the fall-out then this creates a gap within the organisation.

Employers can manage the situation from the outset by having an office romance policy within their employee handbook.

This policy should set out clear and comprehensive guidelines on the company’s stance on this issue.

Guidelines can include banning senior and delegate relationships, requiring disclosure of relationships or for seniors to move positions when relationships develop.

Having employees sign and date this policy serves as evidence that they understand and acknowledge these guidelines should any of these situations arise within the office.

Also, employers can take steps to educate employees on inter-office romances and on the company’s expectation of conduct and professionalism should they enter in to a relationship. Finally, educating employees on sexual harassment policies and their correlation with office romance can reduce liability for companies should romantic involvements turn sour. 

Alan Price is Peninsula Ireland Employment Law Director 

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