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Inappropriate Workplace Relationships: A job for the CIA?

But while recent polls showed that one in eight French people take the view that the matter is a private affair for M Hollande and his family (and therefore a non-issue, never mind a scandal),members of the EU are taking the view that with France in the dire economic straits it is, the President should park his personal relationships and focus on addressing France’s problems. In this context the phrase “fiddling while France (sic) burns” takes on a whole new meaning!

M Hollande’s most recent amours may not have caused the difficulties that the French Government is facing, but they are certainly not helping resolve them. This whole debacle (the motorbike helmet from under which he coyly peeped) was the cherry on the cake and this week we at Russell HR have been thinking about workplace relationships and in particular, inappropriate workplace relationships.

Good working relationships form the basis of a good working environment. As well as clear communication and mutual respect, very often a culture of friendly interaction and a little banter helps people to get through the daily grind productively and helps a company to retain its staff.

All too often it crosses the line and relationships become what we HR people love (whoops sorry, no pun intended) to call “inappropriate”. Let’s take the situation where an affair develops in the workplace. If two people get together at work is it anyone’s business but their own – even if they are married to or partnered with someone else? It is may be a problem if they are forever sneaking off for a bit of illicit passion. We might have to deal with the fallout if one of the “injured” partners finds out. But for many employers the main problems arise when it all goes wrong, and two colleagues who once worked well together suddenly cannot stand to be in the same room and spend their time in a vicious slagging match within earshot of other employees of (horror of horrors) visiting clients. Sometimes the end of a relationship triggers a complaint of sexual harassment, even though during its life the relationship was consensual.

Although some companies have very restrictive policies on workplace romances, many with experience of the problem (and indeed life) would argue that you cannot prevent people from falling in love or fancying each other. Some attempt to ban relationships between employees working in the same office.

So what do employers need to know? We all have a right not to suffer unlawful harassment at work and that includes harassment of a sexual nature. The Equality Act 2010 states that it is unlawful to treat someone less favourably someone simply because he or she rejected unwanted advances. Employers have to take steps to protect employees from unlawful discrimination so this means setting and communicating the necessary standards of behaviour, monitoring and enforcing them. You will have to actively and visibly pursue the discipline and grievance process if an accusation of sexual harassment is made.

Another issue could be a conflict of interest – particularly if the relationship is between a manager and a member of their team. This can cause problems when it comes to promotion, salary review and discipline if other employees believe favouritism has been applied. It has been known for termination settlement agreements to be made in this case, but beware a claims of discrimination if the junior employee is the target.

Some employers who don’t totally outlaw relationships have begun to adopt an American idea known affectionately as ‘the love contract’, requiring that colleagues who begin an intimate relationship tell their employer, and if it develops to sign a contract confirming that the relationship is consensual and that neither will bring a sexual harassment claim if it ends. Whilst this could theoretically deal with any responsibility the company might have (I’m not persuaded that it would do that incidentally),some employees may still decide to keep their affairs secret and then make a claim when things go sour saying there had been no relationship in, just one incident.

All too often employers have to clear up the mess made by others. Like or not, in a case like this you will be expected to manage this type of tense situation. So here is our advice:

  1. Make it a clear policy that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, providing hypothetical case studies.
  2. If a conflict of interest is likely, encourage employees to confidentially inform their manager of their relationship so that arrangements may be made to resolve the matter.
  3. If there appears to be tension between employees which could prove detrimental to workplace activities, have a discreet word with one or both of the employees involved.
  4. Make it clear that outside the office they are free to live their own lives, but in the workplace they are paid to serve the company’s interests and must act appropriately.
  5. Be prepared to make practical and legal restructuring (e.g. moving one of the employees to a different office or site) should the situation develop negatively. NB It should not be the person who made the complaint of harassment unless he or she actively requests or agrees it.
  6. If there is a grievance to investigate, try to understand what happened and in context. Occasionally people simply misread signals from someone they like and make a foolish mistake. If the ‘victim’ is prepared to accept an apology and a practical rearrangement, the problem may be sorted.
  7. If the investigation uncovers action requiring discipline, act as decisively and fairly as possible. If you consider it appropriate to explore matters formally a disciplinary sanction may also be given.

Bonne chance!

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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