It’s the 14th of February and people are celebrating Saint Valentine’s Day all around the world. According to sources, Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to link Saint Valentine with romance in the Middle Ages. Stories developed over time of a ‘High Court of Love’ where ten to sixty ladies would meet on the 14th February each year to rule on issues related to love, such as a lady’s behaviour towards a nobleman of rank! The thought of ending up in such a Court would seem absurd in today’s times, but what about the Employment Tribunal?
It’s not surprising that many relationships start in work, considering we spend a substantial amount of our days working closely with our colleagues. This can at times have a positive impact on the workplace, such as an increase in morale and productivity. But what happens when things turn sour or an employee is in receipt of some unwanted red roses and attention?
A misuse of time and inappropriate behaviour (wanted or unwanted) could lead to poor performance in the workplace and/or an uncomfortable working environment. Such circumstances can give rise to complaints such as bullying and sexual harassment. It can also lead to the risk of an unfair dismissal claim where an employer is faced with having to dismiss employees as a result of the impact on other colleagues, the workplace, or their work itself.
Employers could also receive complaints of less favourable treatment compared with a colleague who is in a relationship with a senior member of staff. Alternatively, on the breakdown of such a relationship, an employer could face the risk of a sex discrimination claim should they decide to move a more junior female employee to another department in an attempt to deal with a relationship breakdown.
A solution for employers?
It is impossible to prevent employees from falling in love, but it is possible to put steps in place to limit the risks of problems arising. It is imperative that employers have robust bullying and harassment policies and procedures in place to deal with situations where things go wrong and to adequately train employees on its content. Employers should be aware that they can be liable for discriminatory acts that take place by employees during the course of employment, regardless of whether they have knowledge of the employee’s conduct. Taking all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination happening can provide a defence for an employer in such circumstances.
Some employers have attempted to enforce a ban on workplace relationships, but such policies are unlikely to work or be enforceable. Further, employers should have regard to an employee’s right to respect for private and family life; any such ban would potentially be a breach of their human rights. They also create the possibility that an employee could be dismissed for falling in love!
Employers should look to consider softer measures to deal with when a personal relationship breaks down, such as mediation to rebuild the working relationship. It is key to ensure that both parties are treated equally, regardless of their status within the organisation.
Relationships in the workplace are inevitable, but instead of ignoring this fact, employers should be proactive in preventing the associated risks.