Employment Law and Guidance on Inter-Office Relationships

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We have just read an interesting article in the Employment Law Journal and thought you may be interested in some of the issues that it raised.

It seems that that some companies propose outlawing relationships between work colleagues completely in their office procedures. Such relationships can give rise to employment law issues, particularly if the relationship goes wrong. In addition, difficult conduct issues could arise. The article highlights the key steps that employers should consider when drafting a policy to deal with this sensitive issue. It suggests that the following steps could provide some protection for the employer:

  • Avoid outright bans on relationships other than in exceptional cases. There may be legal objections to taking such a line and in general it is preferable to provide for flexibility and discretion rather than being unduly prescriptive.
  • Approach the subject as a matter of promoting dignified behaviour by staff. This approach is likely to attract the sympathy of the workforce more readily than something which appears simply to interfere with their freedom.
  • Draw employees’ attention to the risk of putting themselves in a position which would create a conflict of interest. For example, if a manager has a relationship with a subordinate, this might fuel suspicions of favouritism which could damage team morale.
  • Explain what standards of behaviour are required, such as not wasting company time and behaving professionally in front of colleagues (no public displays of affection or bringing relationship problems into work). If an employer needs to enforce these requirements, treat both parties to the relationship equally, regardless of sex, sexual preference or status.
  • Deal with breaches of the policy as disciplinary issues in the ordinary way, ensuring that both process and substance are fair to avoid unfair dismissals.
  • Consider whether it would be appropriate to require employees to disclose a workplace relationship, particularly if one person is in a position of authority over the other. This will allow the employer to create some checks and balances, such as changing reporting lines or abiding by a code of conduct. The need to be sensitive and maintain confidentiality is critical. Consider requiring employees to notify the employer if the relationship changes, so there is a warning of a breakup.
  • Raise awareness generally about what is and is not acceptable workplace conduct and train managers to identify and to deal with issues. Inappropriate behaviour can result in claims of harassment, bullying, assault and discrimination. Employees are only human and that creates a degree of risk which employers have to live with – but that is not to say the employer cannot insist on proper standards of behaviour.
  • Once the policy is implemented, employers should promote it to staff so expectations are clear.

Some food for thought when next you take a look at the review of the office manual.

For further information on employment law or drawing up of office manuals why not contact one of Alexander JLO’s specialist employment lawyers who will be happy to assist?

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