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Love is in The Air

Posted on: 13 February 2007
Posted by: Oliver McCann
Service area: Employment

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As Cupid draws back his bow, according to statistics, the likely recipients will be workers in the workplace. A survey conducted for Lloyds TSB revealed that more than 70% of workers have had a relationship with someone they have worked with. A third said they met their life partner at work.

Office relationships can be a taboo subject. Romances are frowned upon as they may lead to lower production, a decline in standards and intense atmospheres (depending on the relationship is progressing). The real fear for Employers is when the relationship turns sour.

This can create a divide, not only between the two individuals but their co workers. Some co-workers may feel uncomfortable due to divided loyalties. Inevitably this does lead to a decline in production with distracting tensions in the workplace.

Break Down

It is often upon the break down of a relationship that legal claims may follow such as the high profile case of Faria Alam's relationship with Sven-Goran Eriksson. The FA had to defend claims of Constructive Dismissal, Sexual Harassment and breach of contract.

It is when a relationship becomes non-consensual that a claim for Sexual harassment may follow. Sexual Harassment is now defined in its own right and encompasses "unwanted conduct on the grounds of that persons sex" and/or " where a person engages in any form of unwanted verbal, no-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that has he purpose or effect of violating that person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person" It is therefore easy to see how this definition could be easily satisfied when one party to the relationship still desires the relationship to be continuing.

Remember, an employer can be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees' in the course of their employment, not only for Sexual Harassment but also under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (to which there will be no defence if the conduct is established).

There is a defence to vicarious liability for Sexual Harassment and that is where an Employer can demonstrate that that they took all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring. This would include your Equal Opportunities policy and implementation.

Love Contracts

The use of Love Contracts (a US prodigy) are now being considered by major companies in the UK Such Love Contracts would place an obligation on individuals to disclose when they embark upon a relationship with a fellow colleague and confirm that it is consensual.

The may also impose an obligation to notify the Employer as soon as the relationship ends (enabling the Employer to take reasonable steps to avoid harassment issues arising). Some will set out the boundaries to stay within in particular the need to keep their relationship strictly professional whilst at work.

Others may give the Employer the right to consider a transfer of one of the individuals, or alter duties to keep them apart at work. These contracts could be incorporated into the Staff handbook or a separate code of conduct created.

Dismissal

Whether Love Contracts would be enforceable largely depends on what it is seeking to do. A complete ban on office relationships for example may not hold water. Likewise the dismissal of one or both of the individuals may be unfair. Imposing a transfer may give rise to a constructive dismissal claim. As usual it all depends on what is reasonable in all the circumstances.

At the very least the Love Contract would entitle you to find out about the relationship earlier on, set out guidelines for the individuals to follow and allow you to take necessary steps should the relationship fail.

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