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16th September 2015

Love in the workplace!

Love in the workplace!

I read a report in the national media about a claim for unfair dismissal being made against London Zoo arising from a breakdown in relations in a love triangle at work. This resulted in violence at a party between two female zoo keepers over their love interest in a male colleague.

Caroline Westlake alleges unfair dismissal after she was dismissed following a fight with her colleague at the Christmas party. Her colleague suffered a gash to her face from a glass, though it is alleged her colleague threw the first punch. Her colleague received a final written warning, London Zoo justifying the differential treatment having regard to the severity of the injuries/aggravated features.

A number of HR issues arose from this case – staff behaviour at Christmas parties, consistency of disciplinary action, and relationships at work. I wanted to pick up on relationships in the workplace and how businesses should handle this.

Whilst some will say “never mix business with pleasure” the reality is that many people do start a relationship at work. Some couples are able to continue to work together and have successful relationships whilst working together. However, many don’t last and it is when office romances go wrong that the employer ends up getting drawn in and having to resolve disputes.

The implications of close personal relationships (whether successful or broken) at work can include:

  • An effect on the trust and confidence of colleagues in relation to a conflict of interest, fair treatment, or their own ability to discuss issues openly.
  • Perception of outside agencies and individuals regarding the professionalism and fairness of the organisation.
  • Operational issues affecting the ability to deliver your services.
  • Conflicting loyalties and breach of confidentiality.

The reality is, you can’t legislate against workplace relationships and any outright ban would be unworkable. The USA had a concept of “love contracts”, where both individuals agree to certain standards of behaviour and disclosure of any problems/conflicts etc. However this is perhaps a step too far.

If you feel you need to address the risks of relationships within the workplace then a better route would be to ensure appropriate protocols are in place requiring disclosure of relationships, regulating behaviour in the workplace, avoiding disclosure of confidential issues and ensuring conflicts of interest are avoided. Such protocols should not be limited to romances, but should extend to family relationships and also commercial or business relationships.

A policy on relationships at work is easily introduced and is there to protect both the organisation and the individuals concerned. A policy will ensure that staff understand when they need to disclose a relationships to the business whether that is a romance, family or other type of relationship. Such a policy should include:

  1. Disclosure of the relationship – when and to whom
  2. Declaring any conflicts of interest
  3. Steps to take to avoid conflicts of interest
  4. Reiterating confidentiality obligations
  5. Setting out standards of behaviour with each other within the workplace, both when together or following separation
  6. The applicability of the bullying and harassment policy where a relationship breaks down and one part won’t accept it

For organisations wanting to introduce the policy Professional Relationships Policy and Procedure, it is available via the QCS management system. Click here for your FREE TRIAL.

Oliver McCann, Employment Partner, Napthens LLP – QCS Expert Employment Law Contributor

Topics: Human Resources

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