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Can love and relationships in the office work?

It is not uncommon for romances to blossom between work colleagues – generally this causes little problems but with several cases hitting the news recently, we thought we’d take a look at what can sometimes be a quagmire for employees, employers and freelancers.

The rules

It can be difficult for employers to object to workplace relationships, although many wish they could operate an outright ban, regarding them as inappropriate in a business context. However, many employers will want a policy for relationships that develop in the workplace with the aim to:

  • Prevent employees and contractors behaving badly in public (boardroom table scenario?!)

  • Or preventing work performance suffering if the relationship sours (and any possible sexual harassment claims that could follow).

  • Ensure any workplace relationships between line managers and individuals that report to them are fair and don’t have favouritism or perceived favouritism, nepotism or bias attached to them; by asking for such relationships to be disclosed to the employer at an appropriate time.

  • Secure confidentiality – especially where one individual leaves the organisation to work for a competitor and there is a risk that the remaining employee could disclose confidential information to their partner.

If employers have a relationship policy (in the US they have ‘love contracts’) they need to find a balance between respecting the privacy of their workers in a relationship and protecting their business’ interests. An outright ban on relationships is not practical or workable partly because employees could argue that such matters are personal and may breach an individuals’ right to a private and family life under Human Rights legislation.

  • Employers may wish to relocate one of the individuals in a relationship, especially if the couple are in senior positions, to protect any issues that may arise.

  • Some employers go as far as saying that the failure to divulge any relationship involving a manager and a direct report may lead to demotion, transfer, resignation or disciplinary action including dismissal.

However, ‘relationship’ policies can be difficult to enforce if individuals are not prepared to declare relationships until the office gossips do it for them!

Employers should ensure any relationship policies they have, focus on dealing with situations:

  • Where managers are in a relationship with a subordinate,

  • Where a security or confidentiality risk is created,

  • Where certain behaviour makes working life uncomfortable for colleagues.


In May 2014, Ipswich Borough Council told employees that even short-term relationships of a “sexual” or even simply “romantic” nature with colleagues should be declared in order to prevent a conflict of interest in the workplace. This is part of a broader rule that says line managers should be informed about “close personal relationships” among staff, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Staff who develop a relationship while at work could have to be moved to a different job as a result. A spokesman for Ipswich council said:

“The code would be applied where two employees who work for the council are in a close relationship and one is responsible for managing the other or could be involved in selection for promotion or redundancy.”

However, this policy may be subject to challenge by its employees.

In the summer of 2014 it was reported that the Royal Navy’s first female warship commander had been relieved of her post following allegations of an affair with an officer under her command. The Royal Navy has a ‘Code of Social Conduct’ which prohibits any personal relationships which compromise ‘operational effectiveness’ and undermine “trust and cohesion”. There have been no reports to suggest that operational effectiveness was prejudiced or what did or did not happen.

A Royal Navy spokesperson said:

“We can confirm that Commander Sarah West, Commanding Officer of HMS PORTLAND, has been removed from Command. This is an internal matter between the individual and her senior officers and we will not give further details of the removal. Commander West will continue to serve in the Royal Navy and she will be reappointed to a post where her skills and experience can be used to best effect.”

Possible punishments for not meeting the high standards set out include a formal warning and reassignment. A particularly serious breach of the code could result in dismissal.

And, in September 2014, the Birmingham Mail newspaper reported on a love triangle that went badly wrong in the West Midlands Police Force. After the relationship soured, the female police officer involved accused a male police officer of sexual harassment, which went all the went to an Employment Tribunal. The female officer did win her harassment case against her male colleague, although the tribunal were not impressed with the female officer’s own conduct during and after the relationship.

Let us know if you have any questions (but do remember we are not trained agony aunts!)……

If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues then talk to Lesley at The HR Kiosk – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – our fees are low to reflect the pressures on small businesses and you can hire us for as much time as you need.

Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.

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