It’s Valentine’s Day next week – the day when teenagers used to wait nervously by the letterbox, and now wait nervously by their Snapchat. The day when newly-weds wait confidently for the roses and those of us who’ve been married 31 years wait…

No, I’ll keep that one to myself.

And come Monday morning we’ll all be comparing notes around the mythical office water cooler – or kettle as we call it at Castle.

But supposing it goes further than that? Supposing Valentine’s Day in the office isn’t just a comparison of who got what and who forgot – but confirmation that X and Y are more than just good friends?
What are the implications for a business – and for the owners of that business – if two of your staff start a relationship?

According the Wall Street Journal the number of people meeting their future spouse at work is declining – but a relationship at work doesn’t necessarily need to lead to the altar, especially if one of the people involved is already married.

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that about half of HR professionals reported romances in the office – and there’s no doubt at all that those relationships have the potential to seriously disrupt your business…

Whoever it’s between, an office romance is unlikely to be good news for your business. At best the people involved aren’t going to be focusing on their work: at worst, you could end up facing a sexual harassment claim. And if the romance is between a supervisor and someone who reports directly to him/her then there are risks of favouritism and a consequent loss of morale amongst a whole team – or the whole office.

And sooner or later the romance is almost certainly going to end. Again the very best that can happen is that you have an unhappy member of staff – who may end up leaving, needing to be replaced and quite possibly taking confidential information to a competitor. The worst? One half of the relationship wants it to end; the other half doesn’t. And you face the possibility of a slow slide into that sexual harassment claim.

So as an employer, what should you do about an office romance? Clearly the simplest course of action is to ban relationships between your staff. But you can’t do that: firstly it’s totally impractical – you can’t ban love – and secondly it’s almost certainly illegal, especially with the Human Rights Act being in force.

What you can do is make sure you have a policy in place. In the States around 40% of companies have a formal written policy covering relationships within the office: I’ve not seen a figure for this country but I would wager very heavily that the figure is significantly lower. Given the risks I’ve outlined above, that’s a mistake.

Ah, you say. Hang on a minute. Surely it’s covered by our general code of conduct. All our staff agree to “behave properly and not to do anything which brings the company into disrepute.”

Perhaps – but only up to a point. I’ve seen too many codes of conduct that are loosely written and open to varying interpretations. One person’s banter is someone else’s harassment – and who’s to say what constitutes ‘bringing the company into disrepute?’

Office relationships can be destructive and they can have far reaching implications for the success of your business: it’s one area where you need to be proactive not reactive. We’ve already had to work with two clients to repair the damage done by office romances and the lack of suitable procedures to deal with them.

If you’d like any help in framing an appropriate policy – or if there’s a delicate situation in your business you’d like some advice on – then don’t hesitate to get in touch with the Castle HR team. As always, they’re ready to help.

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