"Will you be my office Valentine?” It’s well known that work is fertile ground for the blossoming of intimate relationships. And the City is more fertile than most, with colleagues working long hours together.
But in what circumstances could employers put a stop to romance and discipline those having an office fling?
Can my employer object?
It’s not easy for employers to object to workplace relationships. Romantic ties are personal and any objections would likely be inconsistent with the right to respect for private and family life under human rights law.
The European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated into UK law, states that everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life. Although only public bodies must expressly comply with this right, it is relevant to all employers (including the private sector) as courts and tribunals must interpret, as far as possible, all legislation consistently with the right.
Should the relationship affect the work performance of either employee, even after the relationship turns sour, the employer could invoke their poor performance procedures.
However, it would be hard to dismiss the employee unless, in spite of an improvement plan being put in place and warnings being issued, an acceptable level of performance had not been reached.
Generally, if you have two years’ continuous service, you also have the right not to be unfairly dismissed. You could argue that your employer did not have a fair reason to dismiss you, or that a fair process had not been followed.
Line manager liaisons
In the case of relationships between line managers and those staff that report to them, favouritism and perceived favouritism can be a thorny issue.
In some situations it may be appropriate for employers to have policies requiring such a relationship to be disclosed, and breaching such policies could result in disciplinary action being taken.
However, imposing a general requirement on employees to disclose all personal relationships would again be likely to interfere with the right to respect for private and family life.
Confidentiality could also be a problem. Where, for instance, two employees are intimately involved and one leaves the organisation to work for a competitor, there may be a real risk that the remaining employee could disclose confidential information to their partner.
If this information were then to be passed on to the competitor, this could have serious consequences. It would be hard though for the employer to take action against the existing employee on the sole basis that there might be a chance of so-called pillow talk.
Usually, therefore, employers aren’t able to meddle with personal relationships at work.
Around 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to beating, stoning and decapitation for performing weddings for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. If your employer frustrates a romantic tie and threatens to pass sentence, subject to any duty of disclosure, I would tell them politely to mind their own business.
Banning relationships is bad. Love (and not just on the Feast of Saint Valentine) is good and makes the world go round.