UK: LIAISONS DANGEREUSES? - Office romances need careful handling - they can turn sour.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Office romances need careful handling - they can turn sour.

Whose business is it if two employees are having an affair? Sex is an irresistible drive and the workplace is often the best place to find a partner, so it's almost inevitable that employees will fall in love. An affair gone sour, though, can do real damage. It is virtually sure to cause disruption, and introduces a risk of sexual discrimination claims - even of blackmail - with consequent financial penalties. So how should a company react when the possibility looms?

Moreover it looms constantly. No one is immune, suggests Melinda Hughes, managing director of Manchester recruitment specialists Portland International.

'A stuffy managing director, married for 20 years, was very sniffy about employees having affairs - not comme il faut. Then he ups and runs off with his secretary. Everyone in the company was terribly shocked.' In such emotional circumstances people are liable to be hurt, and when that happens both men and women can turn vindictive. The managing director of a civil engineering firm in Manchester was reputedly asked by his secretary/mistress for promotion and perks - or else. The MD had too much to lose, so she got her new position - so to speak. The MD's wife was left in blissful ignorance.

The more usual scenario is that one party leaves the company. Almost invariably it is the junior employee, who is almost always the woman.

In most companies, says Nigel Holt, group training and personnel manager at construction group Geoffrey Osborne, 'if it is a choice between a director and a secretary, the secretary goes. It's not right, but it's what happens.' Hence the charges of sex discrimination. Blackmail too is a serious risk if things go wrong, points out Owen Warnock, employment partner in the Norwich office of the law firm Eversheds. 'In one company a married manager had an affair with a junior secretary. After they split up, the secretary was dismissed for stealing. She claimed the decision was unfair, and threatened to reveal the affair at the tribunal. The company settled.'

Too often the company pretends it's not happening. Love, romance, sex - however it is tagged - is a subject most managers find difficult to deal with, and many find too embarrassing even to discuss. 'Most people run away from the situation because they don't know how to handle it.

The only way is to address the problem responsibly,' says Holt. And that certainly doesn't mean a categorical ban. Warnock recalls dealing with a company which tried to introduce a 'no-affairs' policy. 'It was completely unworkable. It is totally unrealistic to try and stop staff having affairs.'

'All you can do is to look at each case on its merits and deal with it sensitively. There could be an enormous number of complications, and it is vital to make sure that neither party feels unfairly targeted,' warns Shelagh Norton, head of human resources at Barclaycall in Coventry. 'Decisions must always reflect back on performance,' advises Iain Taylor, human resources manager at KP Foods' crisp factory which employs 2,000 people on Teesside. (He winces at the unintentional pun.) 'Once the secret is out, I would have to tell the couple discreetly that if the relationship begins to affect their work in any way, we'd have to talk seriously. From there it would mean counselling and, if necessary, disciplinary procedures.'

Pretending a problem doesn't exist will not make it go away. Timely, discreet intervention, with responsibility placed firmly on the shoulders of the senior employee, is likely to be the safest option.

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