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Emma O'Connor


Let’s face it, with all the doom and gloom around, how wonderful to celebrate Valentine’s Day – to show your people how much they are valued and giving a wellness “boost” by sharing a sweet treat (perhaps).  For the budding office romance, is this a chance for mystery flowers to be sent or a more public display of affection? How can HR navigate the tricky world of office politics and the office romance and not fall foul of legal protections? Emma O’Connor, Legal Director, discusses the winners and losers in the game of workplace love in her love letter to HR.

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Dear HR


I hope you are well.


Did you know that according to a survey carried out by the TUC in 2018, of the 1,600 people surveyed, one in five people who are married/in a civil partnership met their husband, wife or civil partner whilst at work. Statistically, one in three (33%) people had had a relationship with a colleague at some point in their careers, and that one in five (22%) of people who are married or in a civil partnership met their other half at work. Let’s face it, many of us spend a lot of time at work and so meeting partners at work or having relationships is not unusual. 

Whilst the office romance might be the stuff of gossip, a nudge or wink at the coffee machine, 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 social media misuse.

When love goes bad, it is often HR who have to pick up the piece of a broken heart – or worse. Here are some points to consider:


Set the expectations

Whilst not wishing to stifle a growing romance, there are rules and expectations around behaviours at work that need to be set.  Rather like the old school “rules of the swimming pool” and me having to ask my embarrassed mother what was meant by “no heavy petting”, there need to be some basic ground rules set, if you know what I mean!  One can still be productive and be in love! PDA should stop at the office door. 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 without incident.  But not always.   Consider the scenario of the jilted lover or the advance which is spurned – could this cause issues around workplace relationships, engagement, complaints and grievances? 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.  What if someone has mis-read the signs and this leads to embarrassment? 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.



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 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 – as our recent support of the Positive Parenting Alliance with my colleague Paul Linsell has highlighted. 


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 Snapchat (for example).  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;


  • 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 Awareness Day on the 15th of February which complements St Valentine’s Day!


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.

Get in touch

If you have any questions relating to this article or have any legal disputes you would like to discuss, please contact Emma O'Connor on

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