Relationships in the workplace – do you know your rights?
It’s the 14th February, and love is likely to be in the air. And seeing that we spend 90% of our day with colleagues within our organisation, chances are that falling in love in or around the office environment is highly likely and is happening now more frequently than ever.
So just how feasible is it to fall in love with a fellow colleague or manager? Why should we have to choose between our professional personas or following our hearts and being truly happy? If it came down to it, what would you do – go with being happy, but being discreet, marching up to HR to make your announcement known, or avoiding an office romance at all costs?
Find out more about what your personal rights are on relationships in the workplace with some of the guidelines we’ve uncovered below:-
1) I’ve started a relationship with a colleague. Will my employer have a problem with this?
Check your contract and staff handbook, and make sure you understand any specific policies in your company. Speak to your union if you think the rules are over the top or intrusive. Try to keep your love life separate from your work life as far as possible and try not to let any problems with your partner spill over into work activities.
2) I had a workplace relationship with a colleague and now I have been asked to leave. Do I have to?
Everyone is entitled to a private life and having a relationship with a colleague should not be a sacking offence. If you have been sacked just because of the affair, and have sufficient service, then you can make a complaint of unfair dismissal to an Employment Tribunal. It is also unlawful for employers to treat women or men less favorably because of their sex. If only one of you is being asked to leave because of the affair, then you may also have grounds for a sex discrimination claim, regardless of how long you have worked for your employer.
3) My company want us to sign a “love contract”. Do I have to?
“Love contracts” are an idea that started in the United States and are an attempt to get the employer off the hook for any potential sexual harassment cases should your relationship turn sour. You both sign an agreement that sets out how you will behave at work as well as confirming that your relationship is consensual, and that you understand your employer’s sexual harassment policy. The implication is that your employer is then no longer liable for the conduct of either of you. However, in the UK the existence of a “love contract” is unlikely to protect the company in a tribunal. Everyone is entitled to a private life, even while at work, and if your company is trying to get you to sign an agreement which restricts workplace relationships, this may contravene your rights under article 8 of the Human Rights Act of 1998. If your employer were to dismiss you for refusing to sign a “love contract” you may have grounds for an unfair dismissal claim.
4) Can our company outlaw relationships that start at work?
Companies can, and do, develop HR policies which specify rules for relationships at work. But there is a difference from requiring staff couples to behave in a professional manner whilst at work, and banning relationships altogether. This is bad HR practice and only likely to make staff keep relationships secret. As for its legality however, that is another matter and there isn’t yet any case law to follow. A policy this draconian may conflict with the Human Rights Act, which ensures the right to a private life, even when at work. If you found yourself dismissed as a result, and you have sufficient continuous service with your employer, you could bring a claim in an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal.
5) We were caught in a compromising position in the server room. Is this a sack-able offence?
While you are entitled to a private life at work, this does have limits, and an employer has a right to expect some standards of behaviour when you’re on company time and on the premises. An employer could well view this as gross misconduct, and a reason to dismiss you immediately. If you are summoned to a disciplinary meeting about this, make sure to discuss your options with your union rep if you have one. They are entitled to accompany you, and can plead your case.
6) Can our firm insist that we tell them about all relationships in the workplace?
This kind of policy seems to have become more common in the last few years, requiring employees to notify their manager of any relationships that start at work. The idea behind it in most cases is to make management aware of possible conflicts of interest. If a staff member and their line manager become an item, for example, there is the potential for favouritism in promotion or performance reviews.
A blanket ‘kiss and tell’ policy isn’t good HR practice though. It’s a heavy-handed measure, which doesn’t treat staff as responsible adults. There are also questions about how enforceable it would actually be. At what stage should you declare it – on the first date, or after your engagement party? If you are dismissed for not revealing a relationship, you may have a case for unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal (though be sure to promptly take proper advice before any legal action).
Even if you don’t reveal a relationship you won’t lose your rights to protection from harassment if you then suffer it as a result of that relationship breaking up.