Cupid plc – is it time for a relationship policy?

David Merlin-Jones

St Valentine’s Day: time to shower other halves with flowers, chocolates and other tokens of affection… all well and good after work is finished, but what about those with significant others sitting right next to them in the office? Personal relationships between employees do happen and, increasingly, employers have personal relationship policies in place to help everyone know where the boundaries lie.

Originating in the US, relationship policies are a relatively recent import to the UK. Their purpose is to define the acceptable limits of office relationships in a minimal and non-intrusive manner. They should not dictate what two consenting adults can and cannot do or where these interactions should or shouldn’t occur: usually those matters are best left to the employees’ judgement and discretion.

“Relationships” already exist in the workplace – manager to subordinate, instructor to trainee, customer/client to service provider. A good relationship policy should consider how these relationships could be affected when overlaid with an intimate one: all three examples have the capacity for one party to exert undue influence over the other, potentially allowing leverage of the relationship for favours (or, on breakup, punishment) in the workplace. This gives rise to the potential for conflicts of interest, whether actual or merely perceived. This does not just affect the individuals involved in the relationship – favouritism has a negative effect on the wider workplace.

One solution is to use a relationship policy to engender an atmosphere of transparency and to require employees to declare personal relationships with each other, where necessary. A light-touch policy might require this only when conflicts of interest are possible, such as in reporting line relationships.

According to some possibly unverifiable statistics, the days after St Valentine’s Day are the most popular time for couples to break up. Again, this is where relationship policies come into play: to protect the broken hearted, particularly after acrimonious breakups. They can remind employees that harassment, bullying and victimisation will be swiftly disciplined under your normal procedures. A pre-emptive solution would be to ask employees in a relationship to discreetly inform their manager if their status changes – thus allowing all parties to manage the process in as painless a way as possible.

February 14th is traditionally a day on which enamoured singletons profess their feelings to the object of their desire or simply pay their paramour compliments in the workplace. If a declaration is made in a restrained and appropriate manner, it is unlikely to cause offence. However, if the employee is given the cold shoulder but won’t take no for an answer and persists, this is likely to amount to sexual harassment. This type of behaviour – unwanted sexual attention – would normally be dealt with by a dignity at work policy rather than a relationship policy.

In reality, relationship policies do not try to codify personal relationships, subjective feelings and interactions. They deal with the commercial/workplace considerations that may be affected/impacted by two people in the same workplace/reporting line having a personal relationship. A well-drafted policy should be short and sweet, providing clear guidelines on those workplace aspects. In this way, even if your employees’ relationships with one another hit the rocks, their relationship with the company should survive to see another St Valentine’s Day.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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