Is office romance heating up on Valentine's Day?

This Saturday is Valentine's Day, which means love is quite possibly in the air. But how can HR ensure hearts and flowers do not give way to accusations of favoritism, atmospheres you could cut with a knife, and sexual harassment claims? Christiana Tollast of our UK sister site, HRZone, finds out.

In today's long hours work culture, are office romances inevitable? Judith Germain, leadership consultant and MD of Dynamic Transitions Ltd, is in no doubt: "With people doing increasingly longer hours, then it is going to happen."

Jenny Ungless, life coach at Monster.co.uk, agrees that office romances are an accepted part of working life: "I would say a high proportion of people meet their partner at work, because that is where we meet a lot of people generally."

So what are the issues that organizations must guard against when it comes to romance or playful banter at work?

"Everyone likes a bit of fun and a bit of flirtation can sometimes come into that," says Ungless. However, using Valentine's Day as an example, she warns that problems could arise with employees sending joke cards, where someone feels victimized, rather than people genuinely having a bit of romantic fun.

Employment lawyer Guy Guinan at UK law firm Halliwells explains: "Some people may welcome an approach or want to engage in banter that someone else may feel constitutes harassment."

The crux of the matter here then, is whether any conduct is wanted or not. The person on the receiving end of the conduct will dictate whether something is harassment or not, explains Guinan.

Germain outlines the problems that can arise when colleagues find love over the photocopier: "There can be bad feeling if things go wrong, distraction from work and a loss of respect from others. Also, there could be accusations of favoritism and employers doubting employees' ability to be in control of a situation."

But Germain warns the biggest issue for HR is to make sure there are no harassment claims.

It's human nature

Employers need to think about what they can do to stop or at least discourage such situations from happening, and how they should be managed if they do arise.

Sandra Beale, HR consultant, advises that companies should have a bullying and harassment policy in place, which would cover all aspects of harassment, including sexual. Here Guinan adds: "The employer must also ensure all of its employees are aware of its policy."

So just how should you deal with canoodling in the stationary cupboard? Germain suggests issuing guidelines to ensure that managers at least, do not fraternize with staff. "Otherwise a company could open itself up to harassment claims if things go wrong."

A love-free zone?

It can be difficult to enforce guidelines, but, as Guinan illustrates, not necessarily impossible: "There are certain industries where they do prohibit relationships in the workplace successfully – the police force is one of them because of the effect it can have on operational duties. If an employer can demonstrate there are good grounds for having a restriction in place, then such a contract would be imposable."

Guinan adds, however: "In an office environment it is not necessary to have such a draconian measure in place."

Don't stand so close to me

With relationships, comes the risk that things can subsequently go wrong, so how should HR deal with the consequences of love in the workplace?

When a relationship turns sour, Beale suggests that line management could work with HR, to provide some sort of mediation to get the two parties to see eye to eye.

As for a manager giving preferential treatment to someone they are dating, the matter would be dealt with as any other performance issue, says Germain: "It wouldn't become an issue about going out with someone, but a case of showing favoritism."

If a sexual harassment complaint is raised, Guinan advises a company must take any complaint extremely seriously. A thorough investigation must follow: "Turning a blind eye is probably the biggest fault that a company can have."

Beale adds: "If there is a case to answer following the investigation, then there should be a disciplinary hearing and it should be dealt with accordingly."

Who is responsible?

"The employer is, on the face of it, vicariously liable for actions of its employees, during the course of employment," explains Guinan.

Beale adds that the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 means that if harassment is proven and the company failed to do anything about it, the company can be held liable because they failed to deal with the perpetrator. "The compensation can be horrendous," cautions Beale.

"A company needs to show it has done everything it reasonably can - a policy alone isn't going to provide them with a statutory defense," concludes Guinan.

And that is the key here – you may not be able to guard against human nature, but you can certainly guard against the consequences.

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