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As this week sees Valentine’s Day, what could be more sobering than a warning of the dangers of office affairs?

February 13, 2017 at 9:00 AM

Around one in five of married couples meet at work - if the evidence of divorce petitions are anything to go by, and with the increasing number of workplace affairs involving a colleague or client, the percentage of people who meet at work and have an affair is likely to be far greater than this.

An unexpected Valentine’s card from a colleague is bad enough but when workplace affairs go wrong, the fallout can be significant.

Cards and Letters for Valentine's Day

As pressure grows to spend more time at work, for some, the office becomes the focal point of their life and one of the main ways to meet people: working late in the office turning around documents; team drinks after work to celebrate the end of a deal; sending a flirty email...

Affairs at work are nothing new, yet they continue to cause headaches for HR. Those involving a senior and a junior member of staff can cause particular problems. The rumour-mill of truths and untruths around an affair can unsettle teams and departments, upset the dynamic, affect morale and productivity and leading to calls of favouritism and even discrimination.

Employers need to tread a fine line between protecting the business and interfering in an employee’s private life. Some businesses have policies and procedures to ban workplace relationships (the “anti-hanky-panky-policy”), though it is more common for employers to require relationships are declared to take appropriate action to avoid conflict or difficulties in line management from occurring. The danger with outright bans is that employees will often carry on in secret with the potential to do harm to the business.

A relationship that is out in the open is far easier to deal with - usually by ensuring the couple do not work together and minimising any risk of favouritism or discrimination.

The picture is more complex for ‘regulated’ professions, or where an individual has special responsibilities – like in the police, healthcare, education and banking. A dentist who had a long affair with a nurse was suspended by the General Dental Council for four months for conduct described as "unprofessional, inappropriate and not in the best interests of patients". The nurse was suspended for two months for selling her story to a magazine.

For many businesses the biggest threat is a harassment or discrimination claim. The best starting place is to cultivate an open atmosphere: where employees feel able to raise concerns and if the facts are known, the business will be better able to tackle any potential issue before it escalates.

Further, it is important not to forget that discrimination, harassment or victimisation might not just arise between the parties. There may be colleagues who disapprove of the relationship, whether through morals or jealousy and treat one or both of those involved differently as a result.

Relationships between colleagues are always going to happen and, unless permitted by law, outright bans are not usually the best way forward. A mature and consistent approach clearly communicated to all staff will be easier to negotiate and minimise the risk of a costly and time consuming tribunal claims when things go wrong.

About the Author

Philip McCabe Photo

Philip McCabe is an experienced employment lawyer who has been advising businesses and individuals on a wide range of employment and HR issues since 2000.

He is a member of the Employment Lawyers Association, Industrial Law Society, and Law Society. He regularly writes for national publications on employment law issues and is a regular columnist in the Derbyshire Times.

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