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Janine Milne

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Hearts and flowers and sexual harassment


It’s not all hearts and flowers and M&S ‘dine in for £10’ candlelight suppers today; Valentine’s Day can be the trigger for an HR crisis in the form of sexual harassment allegations! 

According to employment lawyer, Jonathan Maude, there are lots of ways for a business to find itself on the wrong end of a sexual harassment claim on Valentine’s Day.
“The explosion of digital media means that secret Valentines can be wooed or harassed by email, SMS, Twitter and Facebook messages, as well as the more traditional post and special delivery”, explains Maude.
Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the effect of violating the dignity of the recipient, or creating an intimidating, hostile or humiliating environment. 
“It all depends on the reaction of the recipient of the romantic attention, which makes it incredibly difficult for would-be Romeos and office managers to judge where to draw the line.  Flowers and chocolates delivered to the office may be a bit of fun and surprised delight for one employee, but a squirming humiliation for another.
“Is it harassment to send an SMS to a colleague, or someone  you deal with at a client or supplier, inviting them out for a drink?  What if they don’t reply, is it harassment to contact them again?  At what point does the behaviour becoming pestering?  Increasingly, we have heard of employees receiving explicit photos and videos from work colleagues in a misguided attempt to win their affections. 
“Employers are liable for the actions of their employees, and while a grey area, are responsible for providing a safe environment for their staff.  If an employee finds the amorous advances of a colleague offensive, then the employer needs to act.
“This whole area is fraught with blurred lines.  Frequently, employees who have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment, do not want to make a formal complaint because they don’t want to create an awkward working relationship. 
“Notwithstanding the difficulties, employers need to be aware of the sensitivities and be prepared to handle the matter quickly and professionally in order to both protect the employee and minimise sexual harassment claims against the business.”
Bad romance 
Fellow law firm Maxwell Hodge agrees that businesses can face charges of harassment and discrimination, as a result of an office romance.
“Many firms don’t have policies in place covering the fallout from office romances, but they are leaving themselves open to potentially damaging and expensive legal claims,” says Employment Lawyer, Heather Grant.
“Issues tend to arise more when a relationship breaks down but even at the start of a relationship, particularly when it’s between a manager and their subordinate, it can lead to accusations of favouritism from other employees.
“The biggest downside though is when a relationship does fail and then employers can find themselves left with the fall out, including allegations of sexual harassment and in extreme cases, acts of physical violence against former partners.”
In the UK employers can be held liable for the misconduct of their employees; unless they show they have attempted to prevent such behaviour.  Heather warns that it’s vital to have a written policy in place addressing harassment.  
This policy should send a strong message that any kind of harassment be it sexual or not, will not be tolerated and that employees are expected to act professionally at all times even if they are in a romantic relationship. 
Heather advises: “In brief, a policy should set out whether you expect to be told about an office romance or just one between a manager and subordinate.  Make it clear how any concerns about harassment can be reported and what steps your business will take when faced with such an allegation.
“By drawing up a robust policy and getting legal advice when issues arise, firms can cover themselves should an employee’s personal life cross the office door.” 
Still romance left
That said, it does seem that HR directors love a good romance – even when it’s in the office.
Although 97% of the HR directors asked by recruiter OfficeTeam believed office relationships were fine (or perhaps impossible to prevent), many acknowledged their impact on the workplace. 
Chief worries were fears of disruption, making others feel uncomfortable or the effect on the office when the romance sours.
Regardless of whether they are officially condoned, workplace flings are flourishing in UK firms. 
More than one in three employees asked by OfficeTeam admitted to a so-called ‘offair’. Chief offenders were the 35 to 44 age group with 44% admitting to a relationship, double the number of employees aged 18-24.
So romance isn’t dead after all. Remember that when you are presented with your petrol forecourt ‘bouquet’ of flowers tonight… 

One Response

  1. Judgement day

     A much more professional article than although the tone is now perhaps overly judgemental?

    Fun in the office needs to be inclusive, and flaunting romance is a surefire way to create divisions – as my wife discovered when she placed my bouquet on her desk. Single peers snubbed her for the break in solidarity, perhaps favouring the trend to anti-Valentine nights out here in Oz?


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