Love in the workplace: an HR issue?

Love in the Workplace:
is it an HR issue?

How many people do you know met their life partners at work? Most of us can think of one or two couples, it's not an uncommon situation. But is it an HR issue? What are the potential impacts on a business when two colleagues get romantic? How should an employer deal with the situation?

Is it in fact, any of your business as an employer?

We think it is but how you approach it is everything.

Your policies for romance

Romantic relationships are very nearly always complicated in some respect or another. In the early stages, when two people are just making their decisions, most of us have the instinct to give them some space to see how they feel before pushing them into declaring it to others. An employer has extra issues to take into consideration however and ignoring the situation for long is not an option.
You'd be forgiven for not relishing this prospect, but if you have thought it out and put some ground rules down before the particular situation ever arises, it will be a great deal easier to deal with your workplace lovebirds both professionally and helpfully without seeming to be interfering or intrusive.
You can also help to protect everyone concerned - from the couple themselves to their co-workers and you and the business itself - from any toxic fall out that transpires if the love affair goes wrong.

Birds, bees, even educated employees...

It's just not an option to stick your head in the sand and declare that romance has no place in the workplace and people are there to work. You can try if you like, but on the whole it's a bit of a King Canute position because these things happen and people will just be secretive. That might seem to be an ideal outcome - but if the relationship turns sour and you've got two staff members - or a staff member and a client -  who are in the throes of all the tears and recriminations that tend to follow, you will be in a very tricky situation.

We recommend that you pre-empt this situation by laying down some guidelines or even a few light regulations in your Employee Handbook. That way, if you need to intervene or discuss the situation with either or both of them, it won't seem as if you are targeting them personally.

What kind of policies are appropriate?

To some extent this is down to your culture and the nature of your business, the size of your workforce and what kind of hierarchies exist.

But you may also need to take into account interactions with the public, what positions of trust people occupy whether in relation to money or information, and what kind of physical workplace environment it is. On the whole, the business, the team and couples themselves will all be better off if policies are applied with a light touch and are not overly prohibitive.

It's a good idea to get some guidelines written down to stave off trouble arising either from burgeoning passion that doesn't, erm, contain itself at work or from the repercussions of a nasty break up.  Here are our tips:

Senior staff must have it made clear that they have particular responsibilities. You might want to make it a duty for management or supervisory staff to report a relationship with a subordinate for instance. This can be done with an assurance of confidentiality if the couple is not ready to "go public" with the entire business about their relationship.

Aim, gently and respectfully, towards both people being open about what is going on. If you notice something happening, it's fine to have a chat with the couple about any implications for the business. If they haven't gone public yet you might like to do this separately.

A bit of tact and consideration goes a long way in these circumstances. If you are unsure how to open a conversation phrases like this might help:

"I might have got this totally wrong, but I want to be sure that you are OK and I'd rather put my foot in it now and be sure that what I think I see is all good with you than find out later that you didn't realise you could count on our support"

"Could I have a quiet word Steve/Julie? Completely in confidence of course, but it looks to me as if you and X are getting quite close..."

"No it's fine by us, almost entirely your private business, but just in case, because you are management and you have some authority with regard to Harry's employment and future career with us, I should ask you to have a read of the [relevant section] in the Employee Handbook to be sure you are aware."

"If you are unsure of anything, or have any questions, or want to make us aware of any change in circumstances where we can help,  my door is open"

With legislation on sexual harassment at work in mind, some businesses require couples to sign an agreement stating that their relationship is consensual. You can also require signed undertakings that they will recuse themselves from any decision regarding the other's promotion or remuneration, or from any disciplinary issue.

They should also agree that if a conflict of interest arises the employer has the right to demote or move one of them to an alternative role or department. Usually, in those circumstances the couple will be consulted so that the best decision can be made for everyone concerned.

If there are added complications - for instance when one or both have other partners, a very private word is mandatory if the situation has come to your attention. There's little you can do about the basic fact of the relationship, it's not illegal, but you can require that the conduct of their relationship is kept entirely separate from the workplace and ask them to avoid putting their co-workers and/or subordinates in the awkward position of knowing what is going on.

In these circumstances we would recommend taking steps to minimise any working contact between the pair immediately, even if it means moving one of them into an alternative role, location or shift. You will need to follow formal procedures if you are faced with this sort of situation and you should definitely take legal advice.

Define circumstances where it is not appropriate for a couple to continue working together in close proximity. You need to protect the business from any claims of favouritism, or, potentially, if things go wrong between the couple, against claims of unfair treatment or even harassment.

You can, of course, specify an outright ban on displays or affection or sexual behaviour at work - the Employee Handbook is an ideal place to lay down this kind of policy to save you or a manager or supervisor considerable embarrassment if they have to deal with a couple found getting keen in the store room! If it's in the Handbook and is defined as a disciplinary issue then all you have to do is follow due process and not get into discussion about the detail.

To protect against claims of harassment or bullying, it's a good idea to have a written policy on the use company technology. Simply put, personal matters belong on personal devices. If Liz and Gordon have an explosive row on their own phones it's one thing. But if Liz, your company's Regional Sales manager and Gordon the Sales Exec do the same on Slack, company email or their company phones it's potentially your bullying or harassment problem. If you've got a rule in place that personal interactions should not take place on company tech, you are much better protected.

Make sure managers and supervisory staff are aware of policies and trained to deal with relationships that occur among their team members professionally, to understand where and when  they should act and what procedures they need to follow. Management staff should in any case be keenly aware of the law in regard to bullying and harassment and make a habit of keeping their ears to the ground for "situations" as well as potential negative reactions from co-workers, gossip and rumours that might need to be confronted.

It should be clear and explicit that policies apply equally to same-sex couples as well as heterosexual partners. They have the same rights and protections and the same obligations according to their role within the business.

If you already have good grievance procedures in place and laid out in the Employee Handbook then you are well equipped to manage complaints of unfairness, workplace situations that amount to bullying or harassment.

Clients, suppliers and competitors

It happens more than you think! Some employers definitely seek to prohibit this kind of relationship. It is an option, but we consider it counterproductive to attempt to ban relationships, not least because you definitely do want to know if it's going on. Therefore it's best to offer an employee who is in this situation a route to resolving any potential conflicts without damaging their status and prospects with you. This is when you will be considering every penny you spent on putting in place Employee Handbook guidelines and Non-Disclosure Agreements sooner rather than later, very worthwhile.

In this situation you do really need to require staff, especially senior staff and officers of the company, to disclose the relationship at an early stage and to reserve the right to alter their role and responsibilities. We would strongly advise taking professional advice if this situation arises as all kinds of conflict of interest issues can arise. Tiger HR can advise you on HR action and policy and our sister company Tiger Law can help you to draft any pre-emptive or new agreement that might be necessary to protect the business and ensure that any action you take is appropriate and compliant with your employee's rights.

Working from home

With more and more people working from home on their own computer equipment you need policies for how company information is protected when off the premises and explicit agreement from employees to abide by the rules. If a couple has moved in together you might want to discuss this with them, especially where the relationship is with a client, supplier or competitor.

What if it's your romance?

If you are the employer, business owner or senior manager and the person you are involved with is your employee or someone you manage, then you need to be aware that your responsibilities as an employer do not magically stop just because Cupid has paid you a visit.

It would be well worth pulling out your partner's contract of employment and reviewing it - first to remind yourself what your responsibilities are should things not go well, and secondly, so you can reassure your partner that they have sound rights and they will always be respected. If necessary, get a better contract drawn up so everything is crystal clear.

You should also be absolutely scrupulous about ensuring that no-one else has any grounds for complaint that your boyfriend or girlfriend is receiving preferential treatment because of their relationship with you.

Whether you are boss or employee you can minimise negative situations arising because of your love interest by following a few sensible rules of workplace romance etiquette:

  • OK, we get it. You're reading this because it's already too late. But think very carefully before you even go on a date with a colleague. What's your plan if things turn sour? It can be absolutely miserable having to go to work every day and collaborate, or even just see someone. If things take that turn you (or your partner) might want to move on to a new job - is that feasible or worth the risk?

  • Check the company's Employee Handbook to see what policies exist with regard to personal relationships between staff members. Stick to them. If in doubt then make an appointment to sit down with your HR manager or supervisor and get as much clarity as you can on both sides.

  • As far as possible, keep your personal time as far away from the business as you can.

  • Keep things private as best you can until you have both reached the point where you would, for instance, be comfortable introducing your partner to friends and acquaintances and declaring yourself to be an item.

  • If the gossip is beginning to get a bit obvious and uncomfortable, decide together what sort of stand you want to take. If you can, "go public" and let everyone know you have been seeing eachother a bit and are likely to continue to do so.

  • If you want to keep things private, take your HR manager or other senior colleague into your confidence either individually (particularly if you are the one in an management role) or together. You can ask for and expect complete confidentiality. This is an important step as if you do eventually split up, or if an issue like a promotion or pay rise hoves into view,  you will need things to be at least this much above board.

  • Avoid fanning the flames of gossip. Keep your office door open when you are working together, don't engage in public displays of affection or terms of endearment. Don't wander in late from a "long lunch" together. Respect your colleagues and then you are entitled to expect their respect in return.

  • Discuss the situation together and make some plans and little personal rules. No-one wants to talk about the potential of splitting up before they have even got going, but on the whole, having the "how are we going to handle this at work" conversation can only be beneficial for your blossoming relationship. (Or at least you'll find out sooner rather than later whether you've picked yourself out a grown-up who is taking things seriously!).

Apparently workplace romance is on the rise. It's hardly surprising as it's the main place any of us meet anyone new these days. So sooner or later, it's more likely than not that love is going to show up at your business.

No-one plans these things as the history of humanity and an entire planets-worth of art and literature demonstrate.

It doesn't need to be a problem at all, but it's wise to have good policies and open, respectful communication in place to keep teams on track, great employees happy in their jobs and the business safe from awkward situations or nasty fallout from break-ups.

Need some help?

Dealing with personal issues in the workplace can be difficult and even stressful for business owners and management staff.

Tiger HR excels at helping businesses to lay down sound policies and can advise you or your staff on dealing with individual situations positively or even provide professional assistance with any intervention.

We can help.

Tiger HR:

Because happy employees make better businesses

Call us today:

Tel: 01233 227 356

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Sebastian Mattern

Sebastian Mattern

Lead Consultant at Tiger HR
Seb is Tiger HR's Lead Consultant. He specialises in HR, Employment Relations and Employment Law providing a wide range of IHL clients with affordable solutions for everything from routine compliance to Dispute Management. He blogs on topics relating to every aspect of HR and Employment Law. He is an Associate of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development
Sebastian Mattern

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