First-class coach

If the affair were to end acrimoniously, one party might accuse the other of sexual harassment.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: A valued female colleague is having an affair with a junior female member of her department. As her senior manager, I don't know whether or not I ought to take any action. The junior person does not report directly to my colleague, but others have told me I should do something about this. I don't feel comfortable tackling this sensitive issue. A: Do you have a company policy on relationships at work? If so, its provisions will apply to all relationships, heterosexual and homosexual, and your task, though unenviable, will be relatively easy. If, as I suspect, you don't have a policy, things could be a lot trickier. Although it may seem unnecessarily heavy-handed and paternalistic to have a company policy governing private lives and stipulating with whom you may or may not have a relationship, it is, sadly, becoming increasingly necessary in these litigious days.

A principal objection to intra-office romances is that favouritism might lead the senior partner to give preferential treatment to the junior one: promotions, pay rises, time off work, even providing financial guarantees. Fortunately, your two colleagues are not in a direct reporting structure, although it is worth keeping an eye on whether the more senior partner is exerting any undue pressure on the junior's manager to bend the rules in her favour.

Another worry is that passion may get in the way of performance at work, ruining concentration and encouraging the couple to skip off work. And if the affair ends acrimoniously, there's a danger that one party (usually the junior one) will accuse the other of unwanted sexual attention - in other words, sexual harassment.

I hope that won't happen with this couple, but there have been an increasing number of high-profile cases in which the aggrieved party has brought a case to court under sexual discrimination legislation and the complaint has been upheld - at considerable cost to the company. The burden of proof lies with the employer, and the potential damages are unlimited.

Even when the issue doesn't go to court, any tension between the ex-partners can be distressing for their colleagues and can prevent either individual or both working effectively.

So what should you do about this? If there's no formal policy, you're right to tread carefully.

Start by letting other managers know that the implications of intra-office relationships are the same regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Suggest that defining policy on this area could be a good thing, as would training on employee rights and responsibilities for all managers, and possibly staff. After all, discrimination law now covers harassment not only on the grounds of gender and sexual orientation but also race, religion, disability and age. A lawyer I know says sending a birthday card joking about the recipient's age could be construed as harassment.

If your colleagues agree, start the process of developing a policy, perhaps with the help of company solicitors. If they don't want to, they will at least have been made aware of the rocky road that interfering in this affair might entail.

As to this particular affair, if the attraction is shared and the relationship seems stable, there should be little problem, and you may not need to do anything. But if there is evidence that either party is being less effective in their job, you'll have to act. You're within your rights to raise the issue in an individual appraisal or an informal review of performance. Make it clear that the employee is not meeting expectations and cite particular examples, using hard data where possible. Be factual rather than judgmental, and be specific about what improvements you expect. Make a written record of the meeting.

If you do this, make sure that if heterosexual affairs between colleagues are also going on, the same criteria for underperformance apply, so that it is clear you are even-handed. You may like to mention that the organisation is developing a policy on this, to cover all types of relationships, and the individuals should be aware that relationships within work are not encouraged.

Most sizeable enterprises, and quite a few small ones, now set out all their policies - on discrimination and health and safety - in fat employee handbooks that also detail their disciplinary and grievance procedures. This may not cast the employer/employee relationship in an attractive light, but it's very understandable.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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