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The Cost of Unrequited Love

Meredith Hurst Wednesday, February 15, 2012

We don't wish to  put a dampener on the Valentine's celebrations but would like to offer a word of warning to all those potential suitors out there:  Valentine's Day can prove to be a costly minefield in the workplace.  The chance to express your love, or possibly lust in some cases, to a work colleague, and getting it wrong could see you facing charges of sexual harassment at the Tribunal from an aggrieved recipient.  Under the Equality Act 2010, a person harasses another if he or she  " engages in unwanted conduct related to his or her sex or unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of violating that person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment ". Even  that which would appear to be  playful banter, a Valentine's card or text , for example, could cause offence if the recipient does not share the same feelings or sense of humour. The humour and images on Valentine's cards can also be highly inappropriate for the workplace. Unwanted gifts or misguided attention can make a recipient feel awkward, particularly if the arena in which these displays of affection take part is very public.  The important question is whether or not  it is unwanted.  Even ordinary acts of friendliness, for example offering a colleague a lift home, can be unwanted if persistent and unwelcome.  In this context, the underlying excitement associated with Valentines Day of making your feelings known to the subject of your affection, a declaration of intent, is a very risky business and potentially costly to both employee and employer.

If love does bloom in the workplace, employers may ask to be told and wish to keep an eye on  the developing situation. If the parties involved are not at the same level in the organisation, there is the  risk that  undue  pressure  may  be exerted on the more junior member of staff by the person who is in the more senior position or inappropriate favours  may be  handed out.  Other members of staff may feel that  a particular individual is being given special treatment, whether this is the case or not.  Problems can arise if the relationship is with a direct reporting  or line manager as objectivity  could  be an issue.

Although employers may wish to discourage such relationships, it would be difficult for an employer to legitimately 'ban' relationships at work, not least because of the unmanageability of such a policy.  Obviously there are situations where such a ban is obligatory because of the particular nature of trust in the relationship, e.g. between doctors and their patients, teachers and their students and so on.  The fact is that romance often blooms within the confines of the grey office walls and many people meet their long term partners at work.  However, such relationships need to be entered  into with some thought of the problems that may arise, such as confidentiality issues, conflicts of interest and not least what happens if the relationship turns sour, all of which could have far reaching effects on the individuals concerned and  also  for the business.


Antonia Brewer, Partner