Workplace romances are an inevitable consequence of the amount of time people spend at work. While most relationships at work won’t cause problems, it’s best for employers to be prepared and have provisions in place to ensure any workplace affairs or relationships don’t have a negative impact on the organisation. It’s also important that employees understand the expectations on them if they are in a personal relationship with someone at work.
This detailed guide will give you advice on how to deal with affairs and personal relationships in the workplace.
What does the law say about relationships at work in the UK?
In short, relationships at work in the UK are not unlawful. Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 gives people the right to a private life. This means employees have the right to have consensual relationships with people they meet at work or anywhere else. This right must be respected by employers.
However, situations may not always be so straightforward. If your employees’ contract or company handbook restricts or regulates affairs and personal relationships at work, you may be within your right to enforce this in a way that is compatible with the Human Rights Act. This is usually done by putting procedures in place for employees to be upfront about romantic relationships so that the business can take any steps to mitigate the risk.
Trying to ban relationships at work completely, however, could leave you in violation of the Human Rights Act. Employees have the underlying right to privacy, which includes the right to personal relationships, despite what your employee handbook says.
Do employees have to disclose personal relationships at work?
Unless you have included this in the employee’s contract or in your employee handbook, employees do not generally have to disclose relationships.
Many employers include a clause outlining this to avoid workplace harassment claims. Many are also simply aware of the effects an office relationship can have on the workplace as a whole, such as on perceived favouritism, or team morale and relations.
You will understandably want to know about any employees who have entered personal relationships with colleagues so that you can put plans in place to mitigate any such risks.
This is why many businesses create a policy outlining the procedures employees must follow if they enter into romantic relationships in the workplace. Such policies often include a clause stipulating that employees must inform management about romantic relationships.
Relationships between managers and team members
Relationships between co-workers and relationships between a manager and junior staff members should be considered in light of the specific dynamics of the situation. Where managers or team leaders hold responsibility over junior members of staff, this can complicate matters due to the increased risk of favouritism or conflict of interest.
In 2019, the then Mcdonald’s CEO, Steve Easterbrook, was made to step down because he had a relationship with an employee. He wasn’t married, and the relationship was consensual. However, he had to step down because his employment contract prohibited these types of relationships within the business.
Therefore, some businesses ban or, more likely, heavily rregulate, these kinds of relationships.
It is possible to work around these relationships, so there’s not necessarily a need to ban them outright. Banning them will sometimes have a worse effect when it almost inevitably happens. There are ways you can make changes to your business structure so that the relationship will not negatively affect or impact the workplace in any way.
If one of the parties reports to the other or works under them, you may need to slightly alter the structure by having the employee report to someone else. Of course, this will be easier in larger organisations than in smaller ones.
Another reason that many businesses prefer employees not to have relationships at work is because of the dynamic that exists if the relationship fails. This is where, as management, you need to keep a close eye on the situation and ensure that the failed relationship does not impact the wider business.
Where the relationship has been between an employee and a manager, you need to make sure that the employee is not treated less favourably because of this. This could lead to a costly discrimination claim in the worst situations.
Can you ban or restrict personal relationships?
As well as potentially being in breach of human rights legislation, outright banning or restricting workplace romances on personal relationships would generally be unfeasible, disproportionate and ineffective. Relationships will usually develop regardless of an organisation’s strict rules, which could force people to sneak around to hide their relationships and could be detrimental to any efforts to nurture a transparent workplace culture.
It is generally preferable to promote openness by requiring employees to disclose workplace romances. Doing this ensures you can put any arrangements in place if the relationship could impact the business in any way. A workplace policy can help to ensure a consistent and compliant approach to handling workplace relationships.
What happens if employees are having an office affair?
Secret affairs can be more challenging to deal with, and they also have the potential to be more damaging by impacting team morale and performance. You may also see other negative effects, such as increased gossiping, the working atmosphere becoming more toxic, which will need addressing.
If an affair is secret, the employees involved are not most likely to not be willing to volunteer any information, so you will have to look out for signs or evidence of the affair. Behaviour suggestive of an affair could include:
- Taking the same days off.
- Both parties volunteering to work late.
- The two spend time in private together (for example, in a locked office).
Of course, there are many other signs, and it’s important not to assume people are having an affair if you don’t have any substantial proof. It may be more appropriate to discuss unacceptable work behaviour rather than accusing them of having an affair if you don’t have any proof.
Can you dismiss someone for having an affair at work?
Regardless of the policies you have in place, dismissing someone for having a relationship at work alone will very likely lead to a breach of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.
However, you may be able to dismiss someone because their relationship is detrimental to their work or your business as a whole.
As with all dismissals, the employer must follow a fair procedure and have lawful ground(s) to terminate their employment. For example, if the couple are found to have acted inappropriately at work (perhaps they were caught in a compromising situation during work hours), it would be reasonable to follow the disciplinary procedure to establish if there has been misconduct, or even gross misconduct.
In another example, if a worker’s performance has declined, and this is suspected to be due to the relationship, the employer should follow its capability procedure to establish the reasons for the poor performance (such as personal distractions) and to follow a process to support improvement.
Relationships at work policy
While many relationships will cause no problems in the workplace, some end badly and can have detrimental effects on your business. Failed workplace affairs can lead to complaints of favouritism, rumours spreading, gossiping, and potentially sexual harassment claims.
With all the complications that could arise from a workplace romance or affair, it’s a good idea for businesses to have policies in place. Make sure you set out what is and what is not allowed at work and deal with each case sensitively.
Having a policy in place makes it easier to deal with issues as they arise and ensures that each case is dealt with fairly.
Key points to include in your policy
Your policy should include the business’s stance on office romances and clearly set out what is acceptable and what is not. Within your policy, make sure you include provisions that outline the following:
- The definition of a romantic workplace relationship or affair.
- Applicants for your company must disclose any existing personal or romantic relationships with existing employees.
- A process for staff to report a workplace relationship.
- Employees must inform the management, or HR team, about the relationship; this will ideally be as soon as it is common knowledge, or preferably before.
- Management has the right to ban any inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and during work hours.
- Management reserves the right to move an employee to a different team, role, or department if the affair could give rise to a conflict of interest. For example, if the relationship is between a junior employee and a manager.
- Your policy should also outline that you will take any action necessary to avoid a possible claim of sexual harassment or sex discrimination.
You should also include that a formal meeting will take place with the involved parties when you learn about a romantic relationship in the workplace. Here you can discuss any possible conflicts of interest or discuss the effects the relationship will have on the wider business.
As you would with any policy, ensure that employees are informed during the onboarding process. A copy of the employee handbook should also be made easily available on the company intranet.
It’s also always a good idea to conduct regular training sessions on the topic to make sure each employee is well aware of the policy and the consequences if they do not comply. Furthermore, particular attention should be paid to training team leaders and management on these policies.
Additionally, make sure that any amendments to the policy are well-circulated. Remember that you can make changes as new cases arise to better deal with issues that could occur in the future.
Key considerations for managers & HR
Sexual harassments complaints
One of the key concerns surrounding workplace romances and affairs is the possibility of sexual harassment complaints. When relationships break down, there is a high chance of tension between the parties, and unwanted behaviours can occur. This can then lead to a sexual harassment complaint or claim.
It’s therefore advisable that you create a document that explains your sexual harassment policy. You should also make it very clear what kind of behaviour could lead to a sexual harassment claim.
- Basing work-related decisions on whether or not someone accepts a sexual advance.
- Repeated communication (email, messages, letters).
- Unwanted physical contact.
- Malicious rumours.
- Displaying explicit or offensive materials such as photos, videos, or writings.
Taking care of vulnerable staff members
As an employer, you have a duty to protect any vulnerable members of staff in your business. If you notice an emotional relationship forming between a vulnerable member of staff and a more senior member of staff, you should step in to ensure the safety of the vulnerable member.
A vulnerable staff member could be someone who is underage or suffers from a mental health condition. You have a responsibility and a duty of care toward these employees.
Preventing time-wasting & distractions
New relationships are always exciting, and if your partner is around you all the time, you may feel like you want to spend all the time you can with them. This can be a problem when it comes to workplace relationships.
You may find the employees take a little longer at lunchtime to see each other, spend too long in the kitchen making their coffee, or waste time messaging each other over Slack. You should try to make it clear that you will not put up with this behaviour at work.
On top of time-wasting, it could bother other employees who have to pick up the work they’re not doing.
It’s a good idea to sit with those involved and explain what is and what is not acceptable and run through your company policy on workplace romances. However, make sure not to accuse them of anything if they have done nothing wrong.
Couples who work for the same business are likely to have more conversations about work than other couples would have. This means there’s a higher risk of confidential information being shared and leaked.
This is especially important if the relationship breaks down and there are bad feelings between the parties.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists work with UK employers on all aspects of workforce management, including issues surrounding affairs and personal relationships at work. Working closely with our specialists in employment law, we offer a comprehensive solution to reduce legal risks while looking after the interests of the business. For advice on a specific issue, speak to our experts today.
Affairs at work FAQs
Do you have to disclose a relationship at work in the UK?
Employees are under no obligation to disclose relationships at work in the UK. If this is stipulated in your contract on the employee handbook, you should disclose a romantic relationship at work to avoid facing disciplinary action.
Can employers ban workplace relationships?
Employers usually cannot put an outright ban on work relationships. If an employer dismisses an employee solely for having a workplace relationship, they will be in breach of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which gives people the right to privacy.
Can you have a relationship with a work colleague in the UK?
Having a relationship with a work colleague in the UK is generally perfectly legal. Banning relationships among co-workers is often common in the US. However, employees in the UK are protected by the 1998 Human Rights Act, in which Article 8 gives people the right to privacy.
Can a manager date an employee in the UK?
There is no law that prohibits managers from dating an employee in the UK. However, many companies will have policies in place to mitigate any risks of conflict of interest, favouritism, or possible sexual harassment claims.
Last updated: 23 April 2023