We spend a great deal of our time at work, so it may not be surprising when romance blossoms between co-workers.

When an intimate relationship develops between co-workers, there may be difficulties associated with office gossip, a decrease in productivity on behalf of the new couple, or worse still, claims of preferential treatment or conflicting interests.

But more often than not, it is when an office relationship sours that employers are exposed to most risk, including claims that behaviour which was once consensual is now unwanted and constitutes harassment, or when one member of the relationship decides to leave the business because the working relationship cannot be saved. All of these matters pose legal risks, and may also adversely affect business culture and productivity.

Managing risks

As office romance will occur whether employers like it or not, are there any rules of engagement? Should employers have a specific policy on office relationships? If so, how far should it go? Can an employer ban employees from having relationships with their colleagues?

‘Lawful and reasonable’

The starting point is that employers can only require employees to follow ‘lawful and reasonable’ directions. A requirement that employees do not have relationships with colleagues (particularly if the sanction for breach is termination) is unlikely to be deemed ‘lawful and reasonable’ if challenged.

Disclosure

More commonly, employers will require employees to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, including personal relationships, where the relationship is with someone within their managerial chain. Having this information at hand will help employers ensure that a manager does not give preferential treatment to their partner. In circumstances where systems cannot be put in place to prevent a conflict of interest arising, this may form grounds for termination – but this will depend on the facts of the particular case.

Policy and procedure

Employers should implement thorough policies, procedures and codes of conduct which deal with topics such as conflict of interest, bullying, harassment and discrimination. These should make clear what behaviour is not appropriate – including the type of behaviour that may occur at the end of a relationship, for example, continued unwanted advances.

Need help?

If you require further assistance when it comes to managing office relationships, Employment Innovations have a number of industry experts who can assist you to understand your rights and obligations. You can access unlimited workplace advice on this topic and others as part of our subscription products.