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Feature - Romantic Relationships in the Workplace

Meredith Hurst Tuesday, May 21, 2013

While you focus on strategies to maximise performance and engagement in your business, could your employees be engaging in extra-curricular activities?  The workplace can be a fertile place for spawning intimate relationships and according to a survey by CareerBuilder.com 38% of those responding have dated a co-worker at least once.  However a Vault.com survey, which was conducted over a 7 year period, suggests this rate is actually 59%.[1]

These results should come as no surprise considering that the workplace is a social environment where employees spend vast periods of their lives working in close proximity with colleagues.  It would be easy to think of these relationships as simply 'flings' but many can be deep rooted and sincere. In fact, 31% of CareerBuilder's participants stated their workplace relationships lead to marriage, just like the Obamas who met at aChicagolaw firm, or Brad and Angelina's public romance which began on a film set.  With such famous role models for workplace relationships, does it really matter if any of your employees are romantically involved?

Trust, communication, support and loyalty are characteristics of healthy and successful relationships and there is a plethora of research which suggests these are fundamental to a productive and successful working environment.[2]  However, when relationships get too close, these performance drivers can become casualties and have a negative affect on productivity, collaboration, equality (perceived or otherwise) and staff retention, especially when the relationship crosses the lines of responsibility.

Possible Courses of Action

So what should you do when you become aware that employees are making 'doe eyes' at each other across the factory or office floor?   We have provided 10 useful points for your consideration to help you approach this delicate issue.

  1. Establish the facts.  What could appear to be 'doe eyes' could simply be tiredness and the last thing you want to do is insinuate a relationship is ongoing when it is not!  If you are unsure, it would be wise to monitor the situation until you are more certain.
  2. If you are concerned by the prospect of colleagues becoming involved in romantic relationships, consider why.  A preference that all relationships in the organisation should remain firmly on the right side of the platonic line is unlikely to be justifiable.  They must have, or at least have the potential to have, an adverse impact on the organisation before remedial action is taken.   Think about the impact on the workplace of not just the ongoing relationship but the consequences of the fallout should the relationship break down; tears, tantrums, and claims of harassment and bullying are entirely possible.  Compile a list of reasons based on business needs for wishing to intervene and consider what steps should be taken.
  3. Has the relationship crossed the responsibility levels?  If the relationship involves a line manager and subordinate, there are several potential risks which need to be considered and addressed.  Could favouritism be an issue?  Not just in day to day management and delegation of duties, but for appraisals, salary reviews and promotion opportunities to name but a few.  Even if you do not perceive there to be, could other employees have that perception?  If so what impact could it have on trust, teamwork and collaboration?
  4. Has the relationship affected performance?  Has the productivity level of those in the relationship declined?  Assuming that you have the appropriate monitoring policies in place to review their computer use, it may be wise to ensure they are not spending their time sending sweet nothings to each other through your computer networks.
  5. Could confidentiality become an issue, particularly if the relationship crosses responsibility lines or involves a member of your HR, payroll or coaching team or is a PA to senior management?  Even if you trust the individual's integrity, would their colleagues?
  6. Before intervening on a suspected relationship, consider any precedents that have already been set.  Has the corporate culture demonstrated behaviour which suggests that close relationships are acceptable?  Are there any other relationships ongoing? Do you employ individuals who are married or related?  These relationships could pose the same issues as a perceived office fling and it is wise to have a consistent approach.
  7. If you believe such relationships would have an adverse impact on the business, consider constructing a policy for dealing with such occurrences.  It is common for educational and medical establishments to have such policies if the relationship might be seen as a betrayal of trust, i.e. between a 'tutor and student' or 'doctor and patient'.  Outside of such environments it is advisable to ensure that a policy balances the needs of your business with your employees' human rights to have a private life, even in the workplace.  If you already have a policy check that it addresses these points.
  8. You may decide that a policy is too heavy handed and choose instead to adopt a common sense approach.  Accordingly, you could discuss the situation with the parties and agree a mutually acceptable way forward.  If the relationship crosses the responsibility lines, you could suggest that the reporting lines are changed.  It is advisable to point out the benefits of such a change to the parties involved and not to the organisation. Most people want to get along with their colleagues and the fear that other relationships could be compromised could elicit the compliance you require.
  9. A word of caution. It is statistically more likely for women to be the junior employee in workplace relationships and accordingly, simply choosing to move the junior party could result in a claim of sex discrimination.[3]  An employer will indirectly discriminate against a female employee where:

 A provision, criterion or practice (PCP) is applied equally to men and women but,

(i)           it is such that it would be to the detriment of a considerably larger proportion of women than of men, and

(ii)          it cannot be shown to be justifiable irrespective of the sex of the person to whom it is applied, and

(iii)         it is to her detriment.   

If the detriment is established, an employer must show that the PCP was justified.[4]  To satisfy the test of justificationthe employer must show that the measures taken:

              (i)           correspond to a real need on the part of the employer;

               (ii)          were appropriate with a view to achieving the objectives pursued; and               

(ii)          were necessary to that end.

10.Consider whether it would be more appropriate to implement a policy that simply states that should a relationship be shownto adversely affect the organisation or its people, you reserve the right to take remedial action.

Conclusion

Whichever route you decide to take to deal with such relationships it is important to remember that the reason for doing so must be to address a 'real business need' and the measures taken must not have a disproportionate or "disparate" impact on women, or indeed men.  As long as it does you can turn your focus to saving your hard earned money for those office collections for the inevitable rise in impending births!

Please do not hesitate to contact Thomas Mansfield for further advice on this issue.

 

Author:               Monica Beckles, Director of HR Consultancy

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/46368364/ns/business-careers/t/behind-numbers-office-romance/

[2] Deutsch-Salamon, S. and Robinson, S. (2008) Trust that binds: the impact of collective felt trust on organisational performance.Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 93, No 3. pp593-601;  Becker, T.E. (1998) Integrity in organisations: beyond honesty and conscientiousness.Academy ofManagement Review. Vol 23, No 1, January, pp154-161.

[3] See Faulkner v Hampshire Constabulary [2007] UKEAT -5-5_-5_-2-3 (2 March 2007).

[4] See Bilka-Kaufhaus GmbH v Weber von Hartz [1986] IRLR 317

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