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The Caterer

Relationships at work

20 December 2007
Relationships at work

Intimate personal relationships between colleagues can have significant repercussions for employers. Mary Heaney points out some areas of concern

The problem

I suspect that one of my (unmarried) managers is having a relationship with one of his younger colleagues. As their employer, do I need to be concerned? And do I have any legal responsibilities?

The law

In our long-hours culture it is increasingly likely for people to meet their future partners at work, and as many as one in four long-term relationships start between work colleagues.

However, it is worth considering that relationships between employees can create legal problems for employers.

Accusations of favouritism and discrimination can not only create a bad atmosphere, they could lead to costly and potentially damaging legal claims. Moving employees between departments because of an ongoing or failed intimate relationship can give rise to sex discrimination claims, especially where a female employee can argue that her career prospects have been damaged.

The dissemination of confidential information through "pillow talk" between employees can also have serious consequences.

Expert advice

An increasing number of UK companies are asking their employees to sign so-called "love contracts" to protect them from legal claims arising from the break-up of relationships between members of staff. This is an idea imported from the USA, where lawyers claim to save companies millions of dollars in discrimination and harassment claims through such measures.

In the UK, these contracts are usually described as "relationships at work" policies and are generally inserted into employee handbooks for guidance on acceptable behaviour at work.

Employers set out procedures to deal with any risks to their business that a romantic relationship between staff might create, which might include moving one or both parties to another department.

Employees who begin intimate relationships are usually obliged to inform their employer of the relationship and confirm that it is consensual.

One advantage of taking reasonable steps and putting a policy in place beforehand is that employers can put themselves in a stronger position in the event of any discrimination or harassment claim.

Check list

• First, do not assume that what happens "outside" work is not your responsibility. Employment tribunals have found that employers are responsible for their employees' actions, even outside the workplace.

• If you do introduce a relationships-at-work policy, ensure that it clearly states what might happen in the event of a staff relationship developing, such as whether one party will be transferred to another department or whether working arrangements may be altered, and make sure that these are applied consistently.

• Fully brief your staff on the existence and implications of the policy.

Beware!

What measures constitute "reasonable steps" for employers in these situations is somewhat subjective, and failing to draft relationships-at-work policies carefully can lead to problems.

One area where particular care must be taken is where the policy is to transfer the less senior member of the relationship. Statistically, this is likely to be the female partner, and transfer could be construed as indirect sex discrimination.

Additionally, the courts are required to take into account whether dismissing employees due to work-based relationships could be considered a breach of their right to a family life.

Contacts

• Mary Heaney, TakeLegalAdvice.com 020 7332 2579 www.takelegaladvice.com

• Joanna Chatterton, Fox Williams, jkchatterton@foxwilliams.com

• Carl Richards, SJ Berwin, carl.richards@sjberwin.com

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