COMING UP FAST: Crash Course - Managing office romances

COMING UP FAST: Crash Course - Managing office romances - Two of your sales team have just split up and aren't even exchanging e-mails. You've just caught your finance director and his PA groping in the kitchen, and ugly rumours are circulating that the plum promotion in IT has been offered to the HR manager's boyfriend. Meanwhile, a young female employee has complained of receiving lewd Valentines. Relationships are wrecking your business, but what can you do about it?

by ALEXANDER GARRETT
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Two of your sales team have just split up and aren't even exchanging e-mails. You've just caught your finance director and his PA groping in the kitchen, and ugly rumours are circulating that the plum promotion in IT has been offered to the HR manager's boyfriend. Meanwhile, a young female employee has complained of receiving lewd Valentines. Relationships are wrecking your business, but what can you do about it?

YOU CAN'T BEAT HUMAN NATURE. According to Michael Burd, joint head of employment at law firm Lewis Silkin, it is doubtful whether an outright ban on employees having relationships with each other would stand up to the Human Rights Act. But he adds: 'If you do introduce such a policy, you'll be in the invidious position of having to take action even when everybody is happy, because otherwise it would be inconsistent.'

DRAW THE LINES. There's a world between what people do in the privacy of their homes and what they do in front of their colleagues. A discreet peck on the cheek may be acceptable, but passionate kissing wouldn't. But the litmus test should be whether anyone - colleagues, customers, suppliers - is offended. Harassment - persistent, unrequited advances - is always unacceptable.

ANYTHING TO DECLARE? 'I think office romance should always be out in the open, because if it is subterranean it can lead to rumour-mongering and suspicions about favouritism, and it will eventually get out anyway,' says Cary Cooper, professor of occupational psychology at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. Some firms stipulate in the employment contract that you should inform your manager if you start a relationship with a colleague; Cooper favours a voluntary approach.

DON'T LEAVE ROOM FOR FAVOURITISM. Ensure that more than one person is always involved in sensitive personnel decisions such as promotions, to allay any suspicions. Judi James, author of the Work Foundation's book Sex at Work, says: 'During my research, most of the couples I met were so scrupulously fair that one partner often didn't promote the other because of being aware of likely accusations of favouritism. If you take that person out of the decision-making process, it will prove that the person hasn't been chosen because of their relationship.'

BEWARE OF PILLOW TALK. There's no point in keeping employees on opposite sides of a Chinese wall all day if they share a bed at night. Equally, colleagues working closely together who are romantically entangled may alienate other members of their team. Consider separating the two love-birds if there is a genuinely adverse effect on the business. But be absolutely sure that you could justify your decision in an employment tribunal.

PLAY FAIR AFTER BUST-UPS. When a couple fall out in acrimony, it can be tempting to divorce one of them from their job. But you risk litigation on grounds of discrimination or unfair dismissal. Some US companies have 'love contracts' that employees have to sign saying they entered a relationship freely and will not take action against the firm. Burd says: 'It is much better to sit down with the two individuals and explain the difficulty and consult them on the options available. The important thing is to deal with it fairly.'

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE. Office romance is not all bad news. Cary Cooper points out: 'If a couple work in the same environment, they know the sorts of pressures and constraints that each other is under, and so they are able to be more supportive when there are problems at work.'

DO SAY: 'We welcome workplace relationships so long as they do not interfere with the efficiency or reputation of our business.'

DON'T SAY: 'Mmmm, that was wonderful, darling - that's reminded me, I'm writing your 360-degree appraisal in the morning.'

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