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  • 14 Feb 2024

    How should employers manage workplace romances and relationships?

    Workplace romances may not be against the law, but certain behaviours could cross an ethical line. That’s why employers are adopting certain models into the workplace to make things easier. 


    February 2022 data from the US’s Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the University of Chicago’s AmeriSpeak Panel, show that more than a quarter of the workers surveyed admitted to having romantic relationships with a colleague, with 25% of them saying it was with a boss. Around 41% have been asked on a date by a co-worker and more than a quarter of the study said they have a “work-spouse” with over half of them admitting romantic feelings towards the other. 

    A UK study by fellow law firm, Wright Hassall, in 2022 surveyed 2,000 people to see how many had been involved in a romantic relationship with a colleague. The responses showed that just under a quarter of people had had a romantic encounter with someone at work, with men being more likely to engage in a romantic encounter with a colleague than women. Furthermore, the survey found that those aged between 45 and 54 were most likely to seek out an office romance.

    Due to the amount of time people spend at work, there’s no surprise that many people find their partners where they spend most of their waking hours. 

    What are the challenges for employers? 

    For employers, workplace romances can get complicated and can be a challenge to navigate. It is wise for employers to carefully consider the risks associated. 

    For instance, conflict of interests may arise if an employee is dating their manager. Such relationships could lead to unfairness, or accusations thereof, if other members of the workforce feel that a manager’s partner could be given preferential treatment, including bonuses or promotions.

    Additionally, an office romance can impact productivity levels too. Not only can the people involved in the relationship become distracted, but wider staff too, as rumours spread resulting in wasted time and potential complaints of favouritism etc. 

    In some cases, workplace relationships can lead to much more serious issues such as sexual harassment claims. This is why it’s important that employers are aware of any budding relationships occurring in the workplace. 

    What can employers do?

    In most cases, you cannot just stop employees from starting relationships. To do so could be seen as a breach of their human rights under the Human Rights Act 1998. 

    It is unrealistic to think that employers can forbid workplace relationships. Instead, Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of SHRM, suggests that employers, “should reflect on their culture and ensure their approach is current, realistic and balanced in ways that protect employees while leaving them free to romance responsibly.”

    As societal attitudes shift following things like the #MeToo movement, employers should be vigilant to what behaviours may have once been tolerated in the workplace. Even the best relationships in an office can result in a toxic impact not just on other employees but on overall productivity too. Practical changes to ways of working may be required to assist with keeping a relationship professional and establishing boundaries whilst at work. For instance, if the individuals are on the same team, moving to a different team may be required. 

    Is there a solution? 

    Workplace romances are not against the law, but certain behaviours could cross an ethical line, and, in some circumstances, could be considered to be harassment or discriminatory behaviour. 

    Plus, an office romance that turns sour can turn into an embarrassing public relations situation.

    Although there is no one solution to this challenge, there are several approaches that businesses have implemented that appear to have worked. These include; conducting regular training on harassment; and devising policies around workplace relationships.

    A relationships policy for example, could set out rules for employees entering a relationship with a colleague including informing management of it’s happening. It could also include that the employer reserves the right to move employees to different departments or teams to ensure no conflicts of interest. 

    How can Hegarty help? 

    If you’re an employer looking to manage workplace relationships in the right way, contact our employment law team today for practical legal advice from an expert team. 

    If you’re an employee who wants to know their rights to a workplace romance, get in touch with our team for helpful advice and guidance.  

    Contact our team today

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