Many employers choose to mark Valentine’s Day with a sweet treat or a chance to show their staff they are valued. For many within the workplace, it could be the opportunity to show a colleague that you care. However, how can HR navigate the tricky world of office politics or a workplace romance and not fall foul of legal protections? Emma O’Connor, Legal Director, discusses the winners and losers in the game of workplace love and reminds employers of the changes to sexual harassment protection from October 2024.
What a start to 2024 with policy changes galore in the offing!
Before we start reviewing our family friendly policies let’s turn our attention to Valentine’s Day. Did you see, that in a survey from October 2023, YouGov asked over 2,000 adults whether it was or was not appropriate for employers to have policies requiring employees to declare romantic relationships with colleagues. 50% of respondents said no it was not, whilst, only 28% said yes. Does this mean that employees want privacy when it comes to office liaisons? What might this mean for people management?
Whilst the office romance might be the stuff of gossip, a nudge or wink at the water cooler, there is a seriousness which could cause HR a headache: the relationship that turns sour; the unwanted advance; the “office affair” which could lead to clash between home and work life; and an abuse of position between leadership and their team members.
When love goes bad, it is often HR who have to pick up the pieces of a broken heart – or worse. Here are some points to consider:
Set the expectations
Whilst not wishing to stifle a growing romance, set the rules and expectations around behaviours at work. “PDA” should stop at the office door. Yes, it is important to enjoy where you work, who you work for and with, but productivity and commitment to getting the job done, should be the number 1 priority. This is particularly so when we think about the use of social media or chat apps during working time.
There may also be considerations around confidentiality or secrecy between departments or management decisions, give a gentle reminder to both parties about what is right to disclose and what is not. Some employers will want to ban office relationships and that may work for some workplaces and sectors; in others, it may be more acceptable – within the boundaries that are set.
Beware of misplaced affections
The majority of office romances are over before they have begun and most co-worker’s part ways without incident. But not always. Consider the scenario of the jilted lover or the advance which is spurned – this could cause issues around workplace relationships, engagement, complaints and grievances. What if someone has mis-read the signs and this leads to embarrassment? Or at worst, what about the scenario where someone felt pressured into having a relationship with another and then they are subjected to sexual harassment either from being coerced or spurning advances. Be that listening ear (and have a box of tissues ready) and if colleagues do raise concerns show empathy and concern. You will have grievance policies but always keep an open mind as there maybe two sides to each story.
Changes to Sexual Harassment Laws
New laws are being introduced from October 2024 in the area of sexual harassment. My advice – get ready now. Under the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 employers will be required to take ‘reasonable steps’ to proactively address and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. This will shift the emphasis from redressing sexual harassment to its prevention. Additionally, this new legislation grants employment tribunals powers to increase sexual harassment compensation by up to 25% where an employer has not met its new preventative duty. Specific policies on preventing sexual harassment, manager training and awareness as well as making sure there are clear channels available for complaints and issues to be raised internally (as well as an understanding that such issues will be taken seriously by employers) are now going to be essential. Also, note that the definition of what constitutes “at work” can be construed widely.
The office boss/secretary relationship is a bit cliché, and although love is blind when it comes to seniority, there are expectations on our managers to behave in a certain way and not invite issues or concerns when it comes to sexual harassment or their behaviour more generally. Managers are role models and should display role modelling behaviours. They are also the gatekeeper when it comes to your policies and procedures.
Favouring certain team members, treating someone differently because they have accepted or dismissed a manager’s advances, creating a hostile and intimidatory workplace environment can all lead not just to workplace tension but more seriously to potential legal risks of discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and/or resignation. Managers could also face disciplinary action where their behaviours fall below what is expected. Loss of reputation, including for the employer, damage to the victim, also legal costs and management time are all the costs which need to be considered. Remember, under the Equality Act 2010 there is a risk of personal liability and responsibility – and all the compensation and other risks that entails.
Marriage and civil partnership
As well as sex as a protected characteristic, did you know that marriage and civil partnership was also a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010? The Equality Act 2010 says an employer mustn’t discriminate against a worker in employment because they are married or in a civil partnership. Does your EDI training include an explanation of this? Do you train on EDI – if not, then we NEED to speak!
When homelife impacts on work life
Our home lives and work lives have become blurred and in the game of love, this could also cause issues. What happens when relationship breakdown impacts on a person at work? What if, there is a workplace affair and the person’s partner discovers this and brings their anger to the employer’s door? Such behaviours can be incredibly impactful on your employee and also on your workplace more generally. It is often said that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Often those who are in difficult relationships are those who are most influential to your business – your managers and senior leaders. Businesses should consider how to support those who are going through divorce and separation.
Social media maze
How have dating apps, social media and instant messaging impacted the modern workplace relationship? With many workers WFH or in a hybrid way, have the glances across the breakout area been replaced by online messages of affection. Certainly, the use of social media and “apps” can bring its own source of problems and issues for managers and HR. How much time is someone spending on social media? Is this impacting on productivity? What is being posted? Does it fall foul of rules regarding appropriateness? Do you have robust policies when it comes to email/internet/social media use? Do these also cover private use as well? Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment can all occur online, and employers need to be aware of this and the potential risks and consequences.
Love is in the air
Navigating social and relationship etiquette can be a minefield for those involved in a romance but also for those who are affected – and this includes employers. My top tips are:
Set some ground rules;
Make sure you have clear policies on equal opportunities and harassment. I would also link these clearly to your disciplinary procedures;
What about grievance policies or rules relating to email/internet/social media? Make sure that your policies are clearly communicated;
If you sense something isn’t right, if you suspect things are not happy at home or at work, then speak to your employee – consider how can you help and support, and when a colleague might need space and understanding;
Take complaints seriously, show empathy – keep complaints confidential (as best you can) and also keep an open mind;
Train managers and raise awareness of obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and in particular, the changes to the rules preventing sexual harassment;
If you think that an office relationship is not as it should be, or you have concerns over coercion then act – consider whether the relationship in the best interests of your colleagues and also the business;
Lastly, to celebrate our workplace “family”. This is about boosting wellbeing at work, making people feel positive about work, being at work, and working together – work is like a relationship after all.
So, let’s celebrate Valentine’s Day – show your people you care, a sweet treat or a positive message to your workforce is a good thing, a boost to one’s wellbeing is always a good thing… and as the antidote to all things romantic, don’t forget its Singles Day on the 21st September 2024!
If I can help with drafting or reviewing policies, help with workplace HR issues or if I can deliver legal awareness and compliance training on EDI to managers and your wider employee population, then please get in touch.
Yours with love, Emma
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.