Among the strongest drives felt by humans are those of love, sex and to be needed. While it’s natural enough, it can take people into very dangerous territory. Recently Jeremy Forrest, the school teacher who became involved sexually with a pupil, was charged with abduction and has been sent to prison for five years. The girl is still only 16 – a child in the eyes of the law. They profess to be in love. Who knows? They may be. It sometimes happens. I do know of a couple who met with similar (though not the same) circumstances. He was her teacher and knew her at the age of 14, she was his pupil. But they did not start seeing each other until she was 18 and no longer attended the same school. They are now married, have a child and seem to be very happy.
In the case of Mr Forrest, it is impossible to say whether this love will last. Even if it does, that’s really not the point. Teachers occupy a position of trust and have a special duty of care to the vulnerable young. If you've seen a group of young women of 15 or 16 recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that far from being vulnerable, in reality they are so forceful and sure of themselves that possibly it’s the teachers who need protection. Maybe. They may be little monsters at that stage (some of them are for sure) but they are still children physically, emotionally and legally. The signs are quite clear: keeping off the grass.
Proximity often seems to lead to the development of romantic relationships between employees. Many people meet their future spouse at work, but having a workplace relationship is a high risk activity, even if it’s not with an under-age schoolgirl. While they last there’s the risk of time spent flirting rather than working, home issues may come to work. What happens if you want to promote or relocate one of the couple?
After they end there’s the risk of a bad breakup and allegations of bullying or harassment. Feelings can polarise and people take sides. Conduct that was considered acceptable during the relationship may become unwelcome once the relationship ends. It’s not uncommon for one of the parties to the relationship to claim sexual harassment by the other partner. And that means you have to intervene to sort it all out.
While it’s a bit draconian to ban dating in the workplace – and may prove impossible in any event - it’s sensible to set out some guidelines to limit risk.
- Ask employees to let you know when they enter into a personal relationship. This should limit allegations of unwanted harassment if it doesn't work out later.
- Ensure both the romantic partners and their colleagues understand that workplace conduct, cooperation and productivity expectations remain unchanged, no matter how personal relationships may develop. Advise that a fall in standards of conduct or performance because of the relationship will be treated the same way as any other drop in conduct or performance – i.e. through the disciplinary route. Cupid’s arrows are not a defence!
- Ask the employees what thought they have given to the effect the relationship might have on the workplace. Just because love is blind it doesn't mean their colleagues are. Ask the couple how they intend to manage their professional activities and relationships to ensure their work doesn't suffer. Ask for their commitment to make it work. This forces a review of the situation which can give pause for thought and consideration of the possible consequences.
- Where a relationship develops in the same department, reserve the right to move one of the parties to another department, even to another site altogether.
As an aside make sure that guidance for usage of your company communication tools makes it clear that they are to work. In other words emails and phone calls must be professional and appropriate and limited to workplace needs. The number of sexy little texts and photos sent by mobile phone to workplace colleagues is staggering – and if they’re unwanted communications, it’s harassment.
If you do receive allegations of improper behaviour, carry out an investigation commensurate with the circumstances and deal with it in the usual way.
Sometimes it all works out fine. We all know couples who met at work, married and have been working together happily for the next 20 years. But sadly for the vast majority it doesn’t end well and there’s fall out. The cost of inappropriate work relationships can be very high, depending on the circumstances. Employers may have to spend time managing productivity or harassment issues. Employees may face discipline charges or even lose their jobs. If you set the scene you can limit the damage and time you have to spend on it.
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